(Golden Gazette, June 2020)

Neighbors helping neighbors: This is the idea behind the “village” service model.

The model was developed in 2002 by residents of Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood who felt the need for an organized way to support each other as they grew older. The idea caught on across the country and, almost 20 years later, there are now 12 villages in Fairfax County.

As Penny Halpern, president of the Herndon Village Network, says, “When you’ve seen one village, you’ve seen one village.” Each is organized in a way that makes sense to the community. Some are paid membership organizations with staff, some operate under a 55+ community or homeowner association umbrella, and some are informal groups of neighbors.

Each village also provides a unique menu of services such as rides to medical appointments and grocery shopping as well as social engagement opportunities like book clubs and exercise groups.  “Because these are grassroots initiatives, creativity is abundant,” says Rhiannon Duck, the county’s village and special projects coordinator, whose job is to help organize and support villages.

One thing all the villages subscribe to is an appreciation of the distress posed by social isolation, particularly for those sidelined by illness and injury.

Of course, now with the Coronavirus pandemic, for the first time, we are all tackling social isolation at the same time.  

So how are county villages responding to the Coronavirus Pandemic? According to Duck, since the pandemic began, her phone has been ringing off the hook with people interested in finding out more about forming villages. As for the 12 existing villages, she says, they are continuing to provide a high level of neighborly support and socialization. 

One example is the relatively new Village Drive Village in Fairfax. Margaret Kollay, the group’s chair, says the village has actually increased the number of supportive telephone calls they have made since COVID-19 began. She said they are also distributing masks and residents have told them how much they value their efforts to “help them stay healthy.”

Kollay added that the village-sponsored walks have continued on Wednesday and Saturday mornings though now walkers use social distancing. “It’s a way to stay connected with each other and to enjoy nature,” she says.

Diane Watson, head of the Spring Hill Community Village’s Caring Group and the Mount Vernon representative on the Fairfax Area Commission on Aging, also describes a robust response to the Coronavirus challenge. A retired physical therapist who specialized in home care, Watson said, “We all hear about family caregivers, but here the neighbors are the caregivers, too.”

Watson’s village is part of a 55+ Community in Lorton. Despite the Coronavirus, she says, the village continues to provide a variety of services including pet care, meal delivery, transportation to medical appointment, and grocery shopping.

Social activities at Spring Hill also continue though they have been adapted to comply with social distancing protocols. For instance, she said, instead of the usual birthday party in the club house, they recently organized a car caravan to drive by the 75-year-old birthday-girl’s house. The village also sponsors scavenger hunts and photography contests where residents “submit pictures of beautiful sunsets or neighborhood flowers.”

According to Watson, one of the village’s most significant services is ensuring people are informed of county news and services. Its elaborate network of “block captains” routinely signs people up for the Golden Gazette, distribute the File of Life, and ensure everyone is aware of the Health Department guidelines.

Watson, says her village looks to these lines from the famous Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem for inspiration:
     Kind hearts are the gardens,
     Kind thoughts are the roots,
     Kind words are the flowers.
     Kind deeds are the fruits.


Kind hearts are also serving the Herndon community through the Coronavirus pandemic thanks to the Herndon Village Network. 

According to President Penny Halpern, the village, which began in 2015, focuses on offering rides to medical appointments. “Our motto,” she said, “is helping neighbors out one ride at a time.” Halpern, who cites her family’s experience caring for her mother as her inspiration for village involvement, explains that members decided early that the number one need in the
community was transportation.

The group uses ride scheduling software, provided gratis from the Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, and now offers members free rides to doctor offices, stores, restaurants, and more. Last year, 46 volunteers provided 908 rides to medical appointments.

According to Halpern, the Coronavirus distancing protocols have led to fewer doctor appointments and therefore fewer ride requests.  Volunteers, however, have kept very busy implementing their new Pantry Project which delivers shelf-stable meals to older adults. During a weekend in mid-May, volunteers delivered over 30 grocery bags to residents. 

When asked what she’s learned from their efforts to deal with the Coronavirus, Halpern says, “We’ve learned we are all in the same boat.” She added, “We’ve also learned that together, we can still meet our community’s needs.”