H omeHaven, a New Haven-based nonprofit aimed at enriching the lives of the seniors who make up its membership, isn’t slowing down.
The group, with headquarters and a small staff on Whitney Avenue, utilizes its band of member-volunteers to serve nearly 200 individuals with a variety of benefits. Among typical members—senior citizens who wish to remain in their own homes instead of moving into nursing homes—those benefits may include organizing assistance after surgery, arranging social and cultural activities or simply helping with household duties, like winter storm-proofing or replacing light bulbs.
HomeHaven’s activities delve into the more comprehensive, too, like researching and compiling its “Report of Life-Care Alternatives in the New Haven Area,” a bound booklet outlining several local assisted living and retirement facilities for interested members. The book details facilities’ costs, entry requirements and strengths and weaknesses.
Much of HomeHaven’s ambitious agenda is pushed forward by the boundless energy of executive director Frances “Bitsie” Clark, whose incomparable resume includes nineteen years as the executive director of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven and four terms serving as the alderwoman for the 7th Ward downtown.
“She knows everyone in practically the entire Western Hemisphere,” jokes Louis Audette, the recently elected president of HomeHaven’s board of directors, about the enterprising Clark, who, at 82 years young, constantly challenges the organization to reach new goals, including broadening its base. The group is currently launching a pilot program to explore expanding services to the Beaver Hills neighborhood, an area adjacent to Westville. Clark says that although members are very active, she would like the group to be more diverse to reflect New Haven’s economic and racial makeup.
Currently the group is comprised of three “villages” dictated by location. There’s East Rock Village, serving downtown and Wooster Square, and East Haven, North Haven and Hamden. Westville Village naturally serves western areas of the city, and Amity Village serves Orange, Woodbridge and Milford. Members pay $800 a year per couple, or $600 for a single membership, and the group subsidizes about 10 percent of its memberships based on annual income gradations. Audette says these dues largely support the office and also pay for services provided to the small percentage of members who are most in need. Some members view their payment as an “insurance policy,” he says, ensuring the group exists when they get older, while taking advantage of the social activities for now.
HomeHaven is part of a national model, the Village to Village Network, an organization made up of similar groups established all over the country, which provides guidance and hosts annual conferences. New Haven’s chapter first began several years ago, when Audette and a group of motivated East Rock neighbors visited the Beacon Hill Village in Boston, the very first group of its kind, launched in 2002.
Interest in forming a New Haven-based group was high. In 2007, founding members began canvassing, and the group raised $160,000 from individual donations alone.
With donations came requests from those who were interested in joining but lived outside the area initially served. It didn’t make sense for them to form their own non-profits, so HomeHaven was born, an umbrella group housing the individual “villages,” each organizing their own recruitment and volunteer efforts.
“It’s the hub of a wheel,” Audette says of HomeHaven, a wheel that’s constantly spinning with the good efforts of its member volunteers—many former Yale Professors or other notable professionals—who create and enhance planned activities with their own talents and interests.
The group, for instance, went to see Hamlet starring Paul Giamatti at the Yale Rep last spring. Afterward, one of their members, a former English teacher, gave a lecture on the play. There’s a member group called “Cooking in Different Languages,” an effort to explore international cuisines that was so popular it had to split into two. The memoir-writing group also broke into two when a large number of members clamored to join.
“Second Sunday” is an event Audette—a musician himself—holds monthly at his home featuring bluegrass and folk bands; he says nearly half of the attendees are typically HomeHaven members. HomeHaven talks politics, too, and hosted a mayoral debate at the United Church on the Green in August. Also this summer, the group threw a dance party and potluck (pictured above) at Lighthouse Point Park in Morris Cove.
These and other events, as well as health tips, member profiles, birthday announcements and photos, are highlighted in a monthly newsletter, distributed to members online as well as in print.
HomeHaven, it seems, is many things at once. It’s guidance in a world that can be overwhelming. It’s reassurance for children living far away from aging parents. It’s aid for members with medical needs, and the promise of future aid for those in fine health. It’s socialization and community.
In the beginning, now-board president Audette wasn’t even sure he wanted in as a rank-and-filer. After taking the plunge, he “met the most amazing people,” and, like many members, found a second home along the way.
291 Whitney Avenue, Suite 103, New Haven (map)
Written by Cara McDonough. Photographed by Judy Sirota Rosenthal.