- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2008

Calls can come anytime, even in the middle of the night, but Gail Kohn is philosophical.

“I answer the phone 24/7. Accessibility is what Capitol Hill Village has to offer,” says the executive director of the pioneering membership organization composed of and for residents of the District’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.

The idea behind the project, a four-month-old nonprofit still in its infancy, is to find a way for local property owners and renters to stay relatively self-sufficient and in place even as age and accompanying infirmities take hold. The purpose is to encourage people to go on “living a full life in one’s own home,” as the project’s motto states.

Instead of relying on government agencies, relatives who may be distant, or friends and neighbors who may not be available, Village members paying $500 annual dues — $750 for a household — can count on a network of volunteers and vetted vendors to provide a number of services that otherwise might prove difficult and even overwhelming. (Some financial aid is available depending on an individual’s or household’s income.)

“It’s about not creating guilt,” notes Ms. Kohn, a professional in the aging-services field who is the only salaried member on staff. She speaks from wide experience. Among other jobs, she holds the post of executive director of the Collington Episcopal Life Care Retirement Community in Mitchellville, Md., where, in reverse of the Capitol Hill concept, residents have opted to move out of their homes into an assisted care institution.

“It’s about building community,” says Anne Kraemer, a volunteer who contributed seed money to show her faith in the value of self-starting enterprises of this kind. She and member Sharon House recently spent an afternoon with John Overbeck, 77, who has restricted movement because of knee problems. A World War II cryptographer and longtime employee of the Library of Congress, Mr. Overbeck was given Village membership by neighbors who live on either side of the house where he has resided for more than 30 years.

Also visiting that day was Peter Caldwell, 73, a retired lawyer who lives nearby. A Village volunteer, he calls the project “very worthy” but says, “I don’t like putting out $500 if I feel I can get along.” He depends instead on visits from his son in Vermont to assist with small handyman jobs.

Not all communities around the Washington area, or even the country, have done as well with their resources in promoting the village concept, Ms. Kohn attests knowingly. Capitol Hill is famously endowed with an unusual amount of community spirit. It also helps that buildings are densely concentrated physically, making access and neighborliness relatively easy.

Beacon Hill in Boston has had a similar nonprofit project in place for five years and claims a 90 percent renewal rate. Others are in formation in the Greater Washington area, such as in the District’s Palisades neighborhood. The Boston model sets a minimum membership age of 50 and began as an information referral service, not as a “volunteer-first” organization.

Capitol Hill Village’s strength also lies in its early acceptance by charitable sources such as the Capitol Hill Community Foundation and businesses that contributed start-up funds amounting to $200,000. Staying viable financially is key to long-term success; the ideal eventually is to have 600 members or households paying an average of $600, and more paid staff.

To date, 122 residents have joined. Perhaps more remarkable is the number of local people — 160 — who are active as volunteers, some of whom also are members. Volunteers are on call to assist a member in need. Needs vary and are as different as wanting a driver to and from the market, a doctor’s office or a hospital and needing help with computer troubles, changing light bulbs, gardening, plumbing, and snow or leaf removal.

With Capitol Hill Village, should a plumbing problem prove to be too serious to be solved by an amateur hand, professionals are then called — so-called preferred vendors, many of whom have pledged to give discounts. After every request by phone or e-mail, members are contacted, and records are kept of all activity.

“We all look at what our aging parents go through, or did,” says charter member Ed Missiaen, a retired government economist explaining his decision to join. He heads up volunteers in charge of light home-maintenance chores. Thirteen coordinators — all members but one — are in charge of separate categories to be sure the Village functions each day. Its office is in donated basement space at 422 Seventh St. SE.

No middle-of-the-night calls have come through so far, but Ms. Kohn makes sure her phone is put on forwarding when necessary because, she says, “The best thing for this organization is a live voice on the other end when you have a need.” However, she adds pointedly: “We would prefer to drop ‘need’ and concentrate on ‘want.’ ”

No one is asked his or her age upon joining “because the information is not relevant,” she says. Families are encouraged to join as well. A parent might want someone to wait in the car with the children so he or she can do food shopping more efficiently, Ms. Kohn suggests. Current enrollees include a widow in her 30s with four young children. Two members have died since the official start-up in October. One of them told her family that contributions in her memory should go to the Village.

The Village also sponsors a growing program of social and educational events. Hazel Kreinheder, a member and volunteer who was a staff genealogist and historian at the Daughters of the American Revolution, led a tour of the DAR on Jan. 22. A free food tasting was held at a local restaurant on Jan. 24, the same day the director of the District’s Fire Department Emergency Services addressed a group of members on preparing to survive a medical emergency.

No medical services are available, but medical advocacy will be the topic of a talk this month to be given by Village founding member Deborah Edge, a physician who practices on Capitol Hill. Members needing special help can call on a national firm called Home Care Assistance, a Village partner whose services are paid for separately.

“There is ongoing need to keep growing and to connect with the city [government] regarding services,” Ms. Kohn admits. “It’s nibbling at a big cookie if you are an ant.”

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