VillagesOKC photo. This is member Mary Fleming, who is both active in helping shape the direction of the organization and in supporting the other members as well.

VillagesOKC filling void with a network of support for seniors

Concordia is thrilled to support a myriad of nonprofits serving seniors in our community. For VillagesOKC, Concordia has been involved since the beginning. As a founding partner, Concordia has championed VillagesOKC’s growth and has enjoyed watching their network of Village members and volunteers expand. For the original story, click here.

VillagesOKC filling void with a network of support for seniors

By Chrisitian Tabak | July 1, 2019

VillagesOKC is a plan, not a place.

That’s the way Executive Director Marilyn Olson described the senior-focused nonprofit that has been addressing the needs of Oklahoma’s aging adult population since July 2018.

Rather than a real estate development or retirement community, VillagesOKC is a member-driven network of Oklahomans ages 55 and up who have come together to provide a community of resources, services, and companionship for Oklahoma’s aging population. It’s a branch of the national Village to Village Network that operates more than 300 of these senior “villages,” which Olson said is significant as a way to address the needs of one of Oklahoma’s fastest-growing demographics.

“It has to be grassroots, meaning it takes seniors to start it,” Olson said. “While we’re probably not the most capable, we’re the ones who are willing and now we’re the ones putting it together. Our vision is to have groups meeting at libraries, coffee shops, churches, any place we can meet.”

VillageOKC currently has about 60 members that make up its community, which includes seniors from Guthrie, Oklahoma City, El Reno, Norman, Choctaw, and other locations. Membership requires a $250 annual fee and that candidates pass a thorough background check before becoming a part of the community.

Members provide a whole range of services that include anything from providing transportation, dog walking and other physical activities to providing “buddy checks” and other social interactions. They also engage in educational activities such as classes on the effects of certain activities on the brain and social events focused on fostering a sense of community.

Olson said the great thing about the Villages model is that it truly caters to the abilities and resources of each individual. Younger members might volunteer to do more physical activities such as changing lightbulbs or cleaning gutters, while older members who might not have as much mobility are able to provide companionship to other members who might be facing loneliness.

“The Village fills in that gap where I might not feel comfortable asking my neighbor for something for the third time,” Olson said. “It’s meaningful work that they’re really contributing and out of that comes an opportunity to help each other. It’s a way of connecting good people to other good people that otherwise would have had no way of connecting.”

Mary Fleming, an active member and contributor to VillagesOKC, said creating that sense of community is central to what draws seniors in and creates the most community impact. As an 81-year-old who still makes time to go to the gym and participates in agility training with her dog, Fleming said VillagesOKC provides another avenue for elderly Oklahomans to stay active and part of a community. 

“We are organized in order to help people to help themselves,” Fleming said. “We do small services for one another. When there’s something I can do to help someone, that’s what I do and that’s what we all volunteer for. Whatever a person needs that we can’t do it, we help them find someone who can do it.”

A former director of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists and professor emeritus at Eastern Kentucky University, Fleming got involved with VillagesOKC to volunteer both in assisting members and also in helping Olson structure the nonprofit and develop several programs that focus on brain-health initiatives among the organization’s members.

While its volunteering model is what makes VillagesOKC so unique, Olson said that it also presents distinct disadvantages. As the organization looks to expand its network beyond its current scope, she said it is difficult to manage such plans with only three part-time workers and a body of volunteers who are available only at certain times.

Limited financial resources are another difficulty that the organization faces as it looks toward expansion. With a current operating budget of approximately $45,000, Olson said the organization would require at least $120,000 to operate at a level capable of providing constant, reliable service. 

Currently, the organization relies largely on support from partners such as the Oklahoma Heart Hospital and First Bethany Bank, which has provided office space for the nonprofit. The organization also receives significant support from organizations within the senior care sector as well, such as the Concordia LifeCare Community in Oklahoma City and Spanish Cove Retirement Center in Yukon.

Olson said she hopes to keep the network expanding and increasing awareness for the model. 

“We’re fostering volunteerism, which is how you stay alive and healthy, we’re fostering learning, we’re fostering cooperation and positivity,” Olson said. “The number one thing that prevents dementia is positivity. It’s very, very fascinating and it has got us all excited.”