A Community Built Around Older Adults Caring For Adoptive Families A neighborhood in Rantoul, Ill., offers older adults a break in rent in exchange for six hours a week helping families with adopted foster kids. And the model is catching on.
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A Community Built Around Older Adults Caring For Adoptive Families

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A Community Built Around Older Adults Caring For Adoptive Families

A Community Built Around Older Adults Caring For Adoptive Families

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now to a place that might teach us a lot about how to help vulnerable communities. Let's face it. Kids don't wind up in foster care unless bad things have happened to them, so families who adopt them need support. In Rantoul, Ill., in a community called Hope Meadows, families are getting help from seniors who have moved to the neighborhood. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: On a perfect summer day, the Gossett family is hanging out together in the shade of their carport. That's brothers Patrick, 13, Andrew, 12, Jeremiah, 7, and sister Bella, who's 10. They're all former foster kids. Their mom is Whitney Gossett.

WHITNEY GOSSETT: It's a good thing that they all got to stay together. They were talking about having to split them all apart and sending them different places until I told them I wanted all of them.

JAFFE: Soon there will be a dad in the picture, Whitney Gossett's fiance, Brad Burtcher.

BRAD BURTCHER: We just got together in January.

GOSSETT: January, yeah.

BURTCHER: But we're getting married in September, and I plan on adopting all of them. So they're my children. These are my kids.

JAFFE: But for a few years, it was just Whitney.

GOSSETT: I went from single and no kids to having four. It was a big step, but it was well worth it.

JAFFE: Hope Meadows was established 21 years ago to make sure that parents like Whitney Gossett wouldn't have to take that big step alone. Of the roughly 40 houses currently rented in Hope Meadows, only 10 are occupied by families who've adopted children from foster care. The rest are occupied by older adults. They get a break in rent for volunteering six hours a week, but a lot of them do more than that.

CAROL NETTERFIELD: You got to be careful that we don't get a knot in there.

JAFFE: Later, at the community center, Ms. Carol is teaching Bella Gossett how to cross stitch. Bella is making a big red heart.

BELLA: I wanted to learn how to do this because my mom is getting married and this card is for her and her fiance.

JAFFE: Ms. Carol, as the kids call her, is 70-year-old Carol Netterfield.

NETTERFIELD: Bella and I go back a long time.

JAFFE: Since Bella was four or five. They weren't assigned to each other. That doesn't happen here. Ms. Carol just started taking Bella to story time at the library.

NETTERFIELD: But this little one didn't like story time. She wanted to read herself. She was hungry to learn how to read.

JAFFE: Do you have a favorite book?

BELLA: No, not really. I just like most books.

JAFFE: In recent years, communities modeled on Hope Meadows have been created in Oregon, Florida and Massachusetts. And in Northeast Washington, D.C., a project called Genesis is under construction. It's adapting the Hope Meadows idea to serve young women aging out of the foster care system, all of them mothers of small children. Fernando Lemos is the executive director of Mi Casa, the nonprofit developer that's building Genesis with a combination of public and private funds.

FERNANDO LEMOS: The goal of the program is to put together the two elements, the seniors with the teen mothers, to form a community and to support each other.

JAFFE: To clarify, the teen mothers he refers to are not teens anymore. In Washington, D.C., kids age out of foster care at 21.

LEMOS: Everyone will have to offer at least 100 hours every three months of services to their community.

JAFFE: For example, the young mothers can take the seniors to the doctor. The seniors can help out with child care while the moms are at school or at work.

LEMOS: To provide that support that the teen mothers need to be successful in their outside world.

JAFFE: There are half a dozen more of these Hope Meadows-inspired communities in the planning stages. In two of them, seniors will be the neighbors of adults with developmental disabilities. And in New Orleans, older adults will live next door to veterans with traumatic brain injuries.

BRENDA KRAUSE EHEART: I am so convinced that we have to do so much more to utilize the time and talents of older adults to address these social problems.

JAFFE: That's Brenda Krause Eheart, a former University of Illinois professor who founded Hope Meadows. Now she heads the Generations of Hope Development Corp., which doesn't actually develop properties but works with those groups establishing similar communities across the country. She says originally Hope Meadows was just intended to be maybe a dozen families adopting children from the foster care system, offering each other mutual support.

EHEART: I just kept thinking about these children, you know? I wasn't thinking about older adults at all.

JAFFE: She had been trying to get just 12 houses in Rantoul on the Chanute Air Force Base that was shutting down.

EHEART: They said no, we're breaking this base into units, if you will. And they said that you got to take 82 housing units.

JAFFE: Now some of those small housing units could be combined into larger ones for big families. But what about the rest? Well, around that time Eheart happened to hear a lecture on college students moving in with seniors for hardly any rent in exchange for helping out. And she thought that intergenerational thing might work at Hope Meadows, too. Did it ever.

EHEART: I can tell you that if it weren't for the older adults, that program would've collapsed, absolutely would've collapsed.

JAFFE: As the sun is setting, the Gossett boys are having dinner not at their house but at the home of the other Ms. Carol, Carol Veit.

CAROL VEIT: Try it.

ANDREW: It's brown. Look at that. It looks like mushroom.

JAFFE: For the first time ever, 12-year-old Andrew is confronting eggplant that has not been breaded or fried.

VEIT: Put it in your mouth. Come on.

ANDREW: But it's brown.

VEIT: It's a little tiny piece.

JAFFE: Seventy-two-year-old Carol Veit has the Gossett boys to dinner almost once a week. They use her iPad to look up recipes to make.

VEIT: They can make anything they want that doesn't turn on the oven 'cause it's summertime and that's not sweet 'cause their parents don't like that.

JAFFE: But, Andrew doesn't wait until the weekly dinners to see Ms. Carol.

ANDREW: Well, I bug Ms. Carol every day (laughter).

VEIT: (Laughter).

JAFFE: He looks really happy about this.

ANDREW: In fact, Thursday is my day to bug her all day.

JAFFE: Where?

ANDREW: Down at the office 'cause she has to work at the office on Thursday mornings, and I'm bugging her from the time I get down there until 1:00.

JAFFE: What do you mean by bugging her?

ANDREW: I annoy her, and then I work as well.

JAFFE: Helping her get out the community newsletter. Before she retired, Carol Veit was a physical therapist in schools in the El Paso area so she's been around kids her whole life.

VEIT: Yeah, I knew what they were like before I got here (laughter). And they were what I expected, right, Patrick?

PATRICK: Yeah, a hard time.

JAFFE: But the kind of hard time you only give someone when you know them well and really care about them. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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