By Elayne Clift
He’s energetic, gallant, and wickedly funny. He still has an eye for the ladies, writes stories and letters to the editor on a typewriter, bakes banana bread, and up until a year ago was snowshoeing. He says keeping active and maintaining a sense of humor is vital.
None of this would be unusual for many people residing in assisted living settings. But Warren Patrick, former carpenter and real estate and insurance businessman, collector of antique cameras, town clerk and treasurer, is 106.
Patrick, the oldest resident of the West River Valley Senior Housing complex in Townshend, Vt., is also one of its original tenants. He moved in when the assisted living apartments opened in 2007. Now he says of his much-loved home, “Every single day I thank God for my blessings.”
Valley Cares senior housing is like The Little Engine That Could. Founding Board Member John Nopper recalls people strongly questioning the idea of building a full-service facility in a small village, already home to Grace Cottage Hospital, which included a small residential care unit.
“People said it couldn’t be done. That made us more determined,” Nopper says.
But Nopper and Bob Crego, who has worked in community development since 1988, didn’t want to let go of the idea, so they committed to finding a way to make Valley Cares happen.
“We just had to do this. We had no choice. So, we went ahead and did it,” Nopper says. “Together, we began pulling together all the various moving parts for an initial $10 million project.”
Crego, an affordable-housing developer whom Nopper credits with making the whole thing happen, says Valley Cares was the most complex infrastructure project he’d ever worked on because of its rural site, which lacked municipal water or sewer availability.
It also involved what he calls “the overlay of health care and supportive services that needed to be developed for a sensitive population.”
And he says the project is his most rewarding.
Completing Valley Cares required working closely with many of whom Crego had developed good relationships locally and at the state level. It’s a testament to his myriad skills and positive relationships that the community raised almost $1 million to add to the financial help received from 18 other funding sources.
Valley Cares was the nation’s first project to partner with a federal Housing and Urban Development funding source targeting grants for low-income senior housing construction and operations and the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program. These sources yielded a combined $3.5 million, a little over a third of the project’s cost. And it was one of the first licensed assisted living facilities able to use low income tax credits to meet its goal.
To appreciate how special Valley Cares and West River Valley Senior Housing are, it is important to credit the grassroots nature of its development as a community-based, non-profit, high quality, and affordable housing project that has helped seniors age in place with dignity and respect.
It all began in 2002 with the closure of the local nursing home, an event of grave concern to those in the West River Valley communities who were worried about the future of the older adults among their friends and relatives. Responding to that concern, a team led by Grace Cottage Hospital conducted an eldercare needs assessment. The results revealed a serious need for senior housing.
Subsequently, community members and members of the hospital board established a committee charged with developing a business plan for a senior housing project. This became the core of Valley Cares, Inc., incorporated in late 2004. The name recognized the spirit and determination of a 1990s local community organization with the same name.
That’s when Crego, the project’s founding director, and board member Nopper started working—along with many other community members—to establish the housing complex that proved to be groundbreaking in a number of ways: principally its quiet, rural location and the mix of low-income housing funding sources that were used to ensure that seniors of any income level could live there.
On Nov. 1, 2007, the community celebrated Valley Cares as residents began moving into the newly constructed 24-unit independent living building and the 28-unit assisted living building. Eight residents from the residential care unit at Grace Cottage were the first to move in. Valley Cares was fully occupied within a month.
In 2013 Valley Cares expanded the assisted living building, adding 12 apartments.
“It was a learning experience all along the way,” Nopper recalls. “And it was a success from the start. We began with a good idea and then we were very fortunate to have attracted an exceptional staff who are all committed to the success of Valley Cares.”
Executive Director Susanne Shapiro, RN, also attributes the recognized success of Valley Cares to its staff.
“I’ve never seen this level of commitment before. It’s a huge part of the community we’ve been able to create,” she says.
She adds, “Our founders set high expectations. They’ve remained high because of the quality of the people involved. Some of them have been here since Day One. They recognized a good idea and made it work as a team invested in our success. We all started from scratch and learned how to do this as a team.”
Valley Cares’ team members have not been without significant challenges. On New Year’s Eve in 2014, a sprinkler head froze, then burst, triggering a fire suppression system that pumped thousands of gallons of water into eight apartments. That episode took two months to repair.
Eight months later, during a lightning storm, a fireball struck one building, setting off an attic blaze that activated the entire sprinkler system, destroying a wing. Residents had to be evacuated to Town Hall, into which community members raced with coffee and cookies to assist residents being returned to unaffected areas or moved to other housing.
It is all the more to their credit that in 2008 the Affordable Housing Tax Credit Coalition named West River Valley Senior Housing best new senior housing development in the country. This achievement was followed in 2013 by an excellence award for customer satisfaction in assisted living. Valley Cares nabbed a second of those awards in 2016.
Valley Cares celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2017. To date it has provided housing for 219 seniors, served more than 60,000 hot meals through Meals on Wheels, and provided more than 1,500 medical equipment rentals free of charge.
But it’s the little things that make this place special, as one former family member who attended the anniversary festivities noted. She recalled that when Susanne Shapiro had just started working at Valley Cares, her mother’s glasses broke.
“Susanne came into the room and fixed them with paper clips. That’s when I knew it was going to be okay,” she said.
As for Patrick, well, he thinks Valley Cares is just about perfect.
“I like the activity director, who keeps us busy, the food choices, and the staff, who are so attentive they do everything but brush your teeth. It’s my home,” he says.