Church helps provide affordable senior living

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By Susan Keaton

epworth2It started small, with a desire to clean up some unsightly properties near the church building and a concern over the long waiting list for affordable senior housing in Ottawa. Today that spark of an idea at Epworth United Methodist Church is a thriving senior residential community of two- and three-bedroom duplexes on tree-lined streets whose residents gather for weekly potlucks, enjoy coffee together on Saturday mornings and look out for one another.

“We’re a very caring community – without being nosey,” said Jim Garvey, who with his wife has lived at Epworth Village the last three years and now serves as vice president of its board of directors. “We always check up on each other.”

epworthvillage1Epworth UMC is a congregation with an average attendance of 70 in the southern part of Ottawa, a town of 18,500 in LaSalle County.

Twenty years ago, three dilapidated older homes next to the church had become an eyesore and a safety hazard, so the church worked to acquire them, said David Wheeler, a 25-year church member and president of Epworth Village Inc. Church members themselves did the hard work of demolishing the homes and clearing the lots, he said, but then came the question of what to do with the property.

Some of the older church members were looking for retirement homes, and the only senior living community in Ottawa at the time was already built out and had a long waiting list. So the relatively small congregation decided to take on the mission of providing affordable housing for people 55 and over.

“You have to look at it as a mission, and you have to have faith, and you have to be able to roll up your sleeves and go to work,” Wheeler said.

Staged Living Room 6Epworth Village Inc. was incorporated as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization in December 1999, keeping its finances separate from the church and the Northern Illinois Conference for legal reasons, but still closely affiliated. Members of Epworth UMC made up the original board of directors. The group soon broke ground on duplexes on those first three lots, and a year later the congregation’s oldest member became the first resident.

Once those homes were finished, Epworth Village bought more land from the church, and in 2007 residents began moving into Phase II. The neighborhood and the church share a driveway, and residents have their monthly potluck dinners and other events in the church building (a community center is planned but has not yet been built).

The development is now 26 duplexes that are fully accessible and yet space efficient, with amenities like 36-inch-wide doors and easy entry showers with seats. Each residence has an attached garage. Five more units are planned.

“They are really pretty well constructed and well finished,” with quality fixtures and appliances, said board member Marcia Heth, a church member. Members have a book club, the monthly potlucks, a monthly newsletter, and Saturday morning coffees, Heth said.

In nice weather everyone brings coffee to one of the two neighborhood gazebos, but during the colder months they gather at the church’s welcome center, often joined by church members or the pastor, the Rev. Carolyn Lukasick.

“It’s a wonderful neighborhood to live in,” said Lukasick, noting that the parsonage backs up to one of the duplexes. The village employs a secretary, who carries a cellular phone so residents have access to help 24 hours a day, and a maintenance man is on call to help with projects or routine tasks like changing ceiling lightbulbs.

Lukasick said the church has made “a tangible, significant difference” in the community because of this ongoing mission. “The church’s calling is to recognize needs and to meet them – whether that is a cup of water or affordable housing – in Jesus’ name,” she said.

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