Village Connections finds its footing under a broader image

 

Village Connections — the first of its kind in Central Ohio — is part of a growing movement. More than 200 villages in the U.S. help people stay in their homes longer, while providing opportunities to connect, engage and be healthy.

Now, thanks to an image shift and Columbus City Council grant, the nonprofit is growing and serving more residents of German Village, Schumacher Place, Merion Village, The Brewery District and parts of downtown.

Village Connections, founded four years ago, is an organization of neighbors helping neighbors, says Executive Director Kristen Schweitzer.

“I hear all the time from our older members that they no longer know their neighbors. There are so many two-income families; there aren’t as many children on the street. So, it’s great when I can help connect some of those folks to our volunteers that may live on their street,” Schweitzer says.

Volunteers help members, who are 50 years or older, change lightbulbs, drive to the doctor, do yardwork, etc. Members also get together socially.

“Many of our members and our volunteers form close relationships. That’s something different from a social service agency — we’re happy when those relationships are formed,” she says. “There’s no line where you can’t be personal friends with the member.”

Image shift

When Village Connections started, it branded itself as an “aging-in-place” organization. While helping people stay in their homes is part of what the nonprofit does, it’s not everything.

Active seniors didn’t want to belong to an aging-in-place organization, so Village Connections broadened its image to neighbors helping one another.

It changed its logo and organized more events. The nonprofit also attends civic association meetings, goes to community festivals and increased its social media presence.

The other challenge has been cost. Members receiving volunteer services pay annual dues of $500 or $750 for a two-person household. The fee pays for itself quickly, but it sounds like a lot, especially if potential members aren’t sure what Village Connections is or how they might utilize its services, Schweitzer says.

The city council grant, however, let Village Connections cut fees in half for the first year. It also reduced the fees on its lower-cost social membership. The idea is that once members realize the benefits, they’ll stick around.

“We’ve added 11 new members just since we received the grant a couple of months ago,” she says.

Word travels, slowly

Recently, after a direct mailer, Schweitzer got a call from a 20-year German Village resident who’d never heard of the organization. She lives on the same street as several members.

“It’s taken some time, but I think all of these little steps are starting to make a big difference,” Schweitzer says.

Village Connections also has helped others start villages. Eight villages are in development or running in Ohio, including three locally — Village in the Ville (Clintonville area), At Home by High (Short North, part of the university district, Milo-Grogan) and Union County Neighbor to Neighbor.

“Each village may look a little different based on the neighborhood that they’re in, the folks that they serve, but the beauty of this model is that it’s a virtual village and you can determine the best practices for your specific organization,” Schweitzer says. “That’s why there isn’t one village that serves the entire city of Columbus.”