The Rhawnhurst NORC: Transforming Homes Into Safer Havens

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For the past 10 years, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Rhawnhurst NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community), in partnership with Catholic Healthcare Services, has enabled older adults in Northeast Philadelphia’s 19111, 19149 and 19152 ZIP codes to get the support they need to continue living in their homes safely and with dignity.

The vast majority of older adults want to stay living in their own homes, where they have raised families and created memories, rather than moving to an institutional setting, according to the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging. But often it’s the “little” things, like replacing light bulbs, doing yard work and making minor home repairs, that present large obstacles to this. For the past 10 years, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Rhawnhurst NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community), in partnership with Catholic Healthcare Services, has enabled older adults in Northeast Philadelphia’s 19111, 19149 and 19152 ZIP codes to get the support they need to continue living in their homes safely and with dignity.
Abby Gilbert, NORC program manager, said the program strives to deliver services that are “highly impactful and different from anything available through our partners”; they’ve found sprucing up both the inside and outside of homes is what Lower Northeast Philadelphia seniors need most. After receiving a referral, NORC staff members will conduct a home assessment to determine what TLC the home needs to be safe and dry. “In some cases, there are dimly lit stairways because a light bulb burned out five years ago,” said Gilbert. “Or a rug is coming up, which could throw the resident off balance.” Staff members then decide the best way to address the issues they find, through sending volunteers to the home, working with trusted professional partners and/or referring the resident to another agency.
Last year alone, the NORC, with the assistance of more than 350 volunteers, helped over 1,100 households. Sixty percent of the NORC’s clients are Jewish. Approximately two-thirds of them meet federal poverty guidelines.
Most NORC clients live in homes built more than 70 years ago and encounter more serious home-repair issues. The program is an excellent resource for these as well. Gilbert shared just one of many examples: “Last year, at a home shared by two elderly sisters, both bathrooms went bad at the same time, and they had water damage throughout the house. After getting estimates from our contractors, we learned it would cost $4,000 to make the repairs. The sisters could only afford $1,000. We reached out to six other agencies to make up the $3,000 difference, so they could get the plumbing fixed and remain living safely in their home.”
The NORC partners with approximately 50 other groups, including legislative offices, civic and religious groups, and the police, to identify and serve clients.
Volunteers are key to the NORC’s ability to deliver services while keeping costs down. Throughout the year, groups of volunteers from schools, camps and civic organizations volunteer on certain days to weatherize homes, clean up yards and perform chores. Every week, individual volunteers help improve clients’ homes. And, through special partnerships with the Jewish Federation’s Renaissance Group for young leaders and the Jewish Federation Real Estate group, more than 80 homes are now safer and more energy-efficient thanks to volunteers from those groups.
Last year, the Rhawnhurst NORC received a three-year grant from the Pew Fund for the Elderly to increase volunteer outreach and ultimately increase its services. Just recently, this grant made possible a new partnership with Orleans Technical Institute, whose facilities-maintenance students now volunteer to address some homes’ more complex issues. The NORC also announced this week a similar partnership with Philadelphia Job Corps Life Science Institute, two of whose students will be performing home repairs for NORC clients.
While addressing home and yard concerns is currently its core strength, the NORC also has a number of other important roles, such as reducing seniors’ isolation through lunch-and-learns, special interest programs and friendly calls. Staff also provide referrals for other services, such as home-delivered meals and case management. Additionally, due to very high demand, the NORC helps seniors find transportation to medical appointments and grocery shopping. Staff will take seniors in the NORC van or connect them to another reliable transportation option.
As Gilbert sees it, “We are leveraging the energy of the entire community to solve problems for our older adults.”
The NORC is seeking community members to fill the following volunteer roles: drivers to deliver grocery orders once or twice a month to older adults who are unable to shop; Fix For a Friend volunteers to help with small home projects such as tightening loose hinges, changing toilet flappers, filters, light bulbs and smoke detector batteries, and seasonal yard work; Peer Interest Group Leaders who can lead monthly groups to keep older adults active, engaged and connected to the community; and Phone-A-Friend volunteers to call homebound older adults each week to check in. If you would like to volunteer for the Rhawnhurst NORC or refer an older adult to the program, please contact Abby Gilbert at 215-320-0351 or agilbert@jfgp.org.

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