Community Services celebrates 20 years, and looks to the future

In 2000, when Tracy Powell joined what was then the Episcopal Homes Foundation (now Covia, a Front Porch partner) to support its accreditation process, the organization’s outreach program was minimal. In the process of working toward accreditation, Tracy reports, “Board members, executive staff, and residents asked, ‘shouldn’t we be doing more?’” Initially hired as a writer, Tracy stepped forward to develop the nascent programs.

“It started as a direction from the board and then-CEO Laurie Pratt to ‘go help people’. It was that broad,” she says. From those beginnings, over the last 20 years, the Community Services division has grown to offer five flagship programs with Tracy as the Vice President of the Community Services division, managing 25 employees. The division serves people nationwide, using innovative programs to address four areas of impact: food security, social connection, creative engagement, and stable housing.

Market Day, designed to offer a wide variety of fresh produce for a minimal cost to older adults living in food deserts, was Community Services’ first program. Originally started in 1977 at the church across from St. Paul’s Towers in Oakland, Market Day established a practice for Community Services, to test a program and then replicate it in other locations. A second location was opened in 2001, marking the beginnings of Community Services as a part of the organization. The program currently has 24 sites in Northern California, primarily located in senior centers and senior low income housing communities, with more to come at Front Porch communities and other sites in Southern California.

“I really want people to know that Market Day is much more than just produce and reducing food insecurity. It’s about creating purpose and providing an opportunity to build community,” says Sheila Womack, Senior Director of Community Services. This understanding of programs as a source of purpose and community pervades the work of the division.

Well Connected, which started in 2004, and its companion, Well Connected Español, are largely participant-led, inviting people from the United States (and sometimes beyond) to support one another through phone- and online-based groups, classes, and events. Social Call was founded in 2009 as an in-person friendly visiting program to connect older adults and volunteers for one-on-one weekly conversations in English or Spanish. In 2018, the program launched visits by phone or video, which expanded availability throughout the United States. Today, these virtual connection programs reach 3,900 individuals a year.

What sets these programs apart, says Tracy, is the importance of reciprocity – what participants give each other, and how they shape the programs. “Back in the day, we designed programs somewhat paternalistically, as in ‘we’ll fix this for you.’ Now we focus on engaging participants to help create their own solution.”

Katie Wade, Senior Director of Creative Engagement, agrees. As she reflects on working in a traditional service model, she says, “Honestly, it was a little depleting. But thinking about our work in Community Services as an interdependent model and what we all give and receive inside those connections is a holistic way of approaching life in general, as well as the work that we do. I think the end result for participants, volunteers, and community stakeholders is relational but also intentional.”

Amber Carroll, Senior Director of Connection Programs, emphasizes that Community Services programs “are not a resource for ‘them’ – people out there. We are collectively a resource for everyone – every resident, every staff person,” as well as the community at large.

In 2012, Community Services responded to the Bay Area housing crisis by creating and piloting Home Match in Marin County, a region with a high proportion of older adults and few affordable housing options. Leveraging existing housing stock, Home Match connects financially vulnerable or socially isolated older adults who have an extra room in their home with low-income individuals who are challenged to secure safe, affordable housing.  Home Match has grown to serve 5 Bay Area counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, and San Francisco, as well as serving as a resource for other areas seeking to respond creatively to their local housing needs.

“I want to make homesharing as understood and used as peer to peer car rides or Airbnb,” says Karen Coppock, Senior Director of Home Match. “There are 3.6 million unoccupied rooms in the top 100 housing markets in the United States, tons of opportunity to house people and stabilize the housing of others.”

Although for most of its programs, Community Services is focused on direct outreach, its newest program, Creative Spark, primarily trains and supports other service providers. “That’s an exciting route for us and it’s really in keeping with how we have been developing a national touch and influencing the field of aging services for several years,” says Katie. “Creative Spark is a next step in that continuum.”

One significant change Tracy has seen in her years is in the growth of the team’s sophistication and business savvy. “We have much more rigor about strategy and data collection,” she says. “We know how important storytelling is to be able to communicate about impact, but if it’s not backed up by data, then that’s a problem.” Over the past five years, “it’s been about focus, focus, focus. We had to let go of some programs and make some really hard choices to be able to use the resources we’re given in the most impactful, thoughtful, and responsible way.”

“I believe we can be leaders in the space of doing this work that demonstrates our social accountability,” says Tracy. “It’s something that residents, staff, family members, and board members can be proud of. I’m grateful for Front Porch’s commitment to dedicate time and financial resources to make an impact on people’s lives as well as social challenges. I think we embody the values of Front Porch and the work we do is another way to think about how to live out those values.”