How can we engage older residents while tapping their expertise? In 2006, The New York Community Trust responded to an invitation from Atlantic Philanthropies offering challenge to get people over 60 involved as they improve life for everyone in their communities. Atlantic’s effort, called the Community Experience Partnership, used this tagline: “in the 60s they changed the world, in their 60s they might do it again.”
The Trust partnered with a respected community agency, United Neighborhood Houses of New York, to create and start a project. Our advisory committee called for three components: The project had to be essential to the well-being of low-income communities, resonate with the interest and skills of older adults, and have achievable, measurable results. After deliberating, the committee came up with a program to bring nutritious, affordable food into five poor New York City neighborhoods, one in each borough.
This post is part of the #CF100 Series of blog posts. The Council on Foundations is marking the 100th anniversary of the nation’s first community foundation, The Cleveland Foundation, by highlighting the roles of community foundations with this series.
The project lasted six years, with $625,000 from Atlantic Philanthropies and $1.2 million from The Trust, working with five agencies. The 272 volunteers accomplished a lot in what we called Healthy Communities Through Healthy Food. They:
- grew and harvested vegetables from 145 urban gardens,
- built four chicken coops and one bee cooperative,
- operated eight farm stands,
- ran a buyers club selling food to 1,000 people,
- and conducted 350 healthy nutrition and cooking classes.
Together, the projects brought 252,000 pounds of healthful food into communities with few supermarkets. United Neighborhood Houses operated a learning community for the older adults to share experiences and improve the work. For example, experienced growers taught others how to increase output from gardens.
An evaluation by the New York Academy of Medicine found some unexpected benefits for the older adults helping neighbors. They overwhelmingly reported an increased sense of self-worth and empowerment and a decrease in feelings of isolation. More than 75 percent reported improved physical and mental health, as evidenced by lower levels of depression, weight loss, and decreased use of prescription drugs. They made a true commitment: Many of the volunteers worked on the programs for four to six years.
The Trust learned many useful lessons. First, it’s important to let community residents themselves identify needs, and give them the resources to find their own solutions. Second, carefully planning projects with community agencies leads to more focused projects with measurable results. Third, providing continuing technical assistance and a forum to share experiences encourage lasting participation. Finally, meaningful results require a commitment of support over several years.