Derek Dunham

A solution to occupancy challenges can come from someplace you never expected, like foster care.

When you think about it, it’s a natural combination: Youth aging out of foster care need a job and a place to stay. Senior communities have empty housing, job vacancies and caring mentors. But no one has thought to bring the two together — until now.

Rosemary Ramsey, the director of The Victory Lap, got this unique idea while she was employed at Brookdale Senior Living and volunteering with Monroe Harding, a nonprofit that helps foster kids that are aging out of the system.

How The Victory Lap Began 

“I was sitting at my desk at Brookdale, thinking about occupancy challenges. At the same time, I was volunteering with kids aging out of foster care. I saw their issues of finding employment, housing and connection to caring adults,” Ramsey said. “It kind of hit me that my worlds could collide in a productive way.”

“The truth of the matter is, a lot of these kids never get adopted,” she went on. “Twenty-two thousand kids age out every year in America. At least 30 percent of them will experience homelessness — and every one that bottoms out costs tax payers over a million dollars.”

In addition to occupancy challenges at communities, there’s also a nationwide labor shortage. “There are tons of entry-level opportunities in senior housing,” said Ramsey.

She also feels that great relationships can develop between residents and youths aging out of foster care. “There are three things older people universally love,” she said. “Mail, ice cream and young people.”

Cannonballing Into Community Life

John, the first participant, age 18, liked the idea right away. “It was an opportunity for him to have his own space. In the group home, you have to share a kitchen and a bathroom,” Ramsey said. “He also liked the idea of being around seniors because he was close with his grandparents. And he loved the pool.” That’s why, to celebrate John’s move-in, the local TV station shot a video of him cannonballing into the community’s pool. Watch it here.

John will attend college this fall while working part time and living at East Ridge Residence, an independent living community. He’ll receive oversight and counseling from a local nonprofit: Partnership for Families, Children and Adults.

Now that her program is up and running, Ramsey is looking forward to future placements. “This is not just a touchy, feel-good opportunity. It has real, practical economic benefits,” she stressed. “Retirement communities can not only fulfill their need for employees, and contribute with some living spaces not in use, but they can actually receive a stipend from the state for helping provide housing.”

In senior living, she said, “intergenerational” is a popular buzzword, referring to initiatives like Girl Scouts coming in to read stories, but Ramsey thinks that it can be taken a lot further. “I think it’s a marketing advantage — a place where older people and younger people live together,” she said.

Expanding the Program

Eventually, Ramsey would like to expand the program to populations beyond the foster demographic, such as veterans and people who are developmentally disabled. “Our industry is sitting on 100,000 vacancies. Let’s try to make a dent in our occupancy challenges and think outside the box,” she said. “These people can add life to the community, and residents have life experience and wisdom to impart.”

Right now, Ramsey is excited that the first participant has moved in. “John is doing great! He describes life in the retirement community as ‘way better’ than the group home,” she said. “He  has more freedom to come and go as he chooses. His job in the dining room is going well, and he has his own section now, so he is proud of that! He’s enjoying playing Bingo and cards, and the residents are teaching him new games.”

Has your community found unique solutions to occupancy challenges? Let me know at DDunham@VarsityBranding.com.