New Life Village near Tampa provides new homes for foster kids, new purpose for seniors

As the only intergenerational residential model in the state of Florida doing what they’re doing, New Life Village in Palm River just east of Tampa is working to reduce the number of children who have been in foster care for over one year. 

Founded in 2012, New Life Village helps solve two of the problems impacting the Tampa Bay Area: affordable housing and a foster care crisis.

With their mission being to provide a “supportive environment, within an intergenerational community for children in need of a safe, stable, and permanent family experience,” the nonprofit’s leadership is working on their 12-acre campus that’s currently about 1/3 developed.   

Earlier in September,  construction began on two new buildings that will be home to 16 families about a year from now, growing the village from about 100 residents to 170. The new buildings will add to the already existing 32 townhomes, plus a community garden, splash pad, swimming pool, playground, and football field. Plans further out are preliminary, but now include a multipurpose program building and one bedroom living spaces for senior citizens.

“The community and its program are focused on the healing of the children,” says Mariah Hayden, Executive Director of New Life Village. “We help them get past their trauma and get coping mechanisms.”

Seniors living at the Village are all age 55 and older and are there for intentional retirement. They serve as surrogate grandparents, tutors, and mentors. 

“They’re basically the village elders in the proverb ‘it takes a village to raise a child’,” says Hayden.

Being in New Life Village, she explains, prevents these abandoned, abused and neglected kids, who are usually not living with their biological parents, from going into the foster care system. It creates a safe place for them to call ‘home’ in their foster-adoptive-kinship family without being stigmatized for being adopted.

The program also works to combat the negative outcomes associated with foster care systems such as poor education/graduation rates, homelessness, teen pregnancy, incarceration, mental health issues, and unemployment. 

In a survey collected from residents in June 2020, 88% of children had improved their grades since moving in, 100% of children felt they’re an important part of the Village family, 99% of seniors felt they were leading a purposeful and meaningful life at the Village, and 91% of caregivers felt strongly that the Village family environment is safe. Breaking the cycle of many of the foster care system’s main issues, New Life Village positively impacts a variety of issues associated with traditional foster care: a lack of support from relative caregivers, a shortage of foster parents, the impact of trauma, and the lack of affordable housing.

“The longer kids are in foster care, the longer they have a physical probability of very negative, traumatic outcomes,” Hayden says. 

The average change of households per child is about three placements a year. Each time that happens, not only does that child lose the sense of family and stability, but they get re-traumatized into thinking no one wants them and that they have no place to go. 

“The kids have a need, and the seniors have a need. The kids and the seniors provide for each other’s needs so it’s a beautiful kind of yin and yang relationship that provides psychological and health outcomes for both groups.” 

Of course, there’s going to be issues that arise from intermixing generations. “If we go to our grandparent’s house, no matter who we are, no matter what age we are, most likely they’re not going to understand some aspect of our lives,” Hayden says. “You have the norm and expectation of each generation, and each generation looks at the other generation in that lens.”

From phone etiquette to manners and work ethic, the kids nowadays hold much different values then those of their elders, she says.
“Our seniors came from a generation where you stayed married your whole life, you picked a career and that was your career your whole life. The older generation is really committed to the idea that you start a job and earn your way up the ladder. You stick around for a long time, you respect your elders no matter what, and that’s what working looks like for them. The younger generation is completely on the other side of that spectrum,” Hayden says.
Challenges caused by innovations in technology and changes in the workplace are never going to go away.
“Our grandparents had the same issues with their grandparents, so on and so forth. … it’s just things change and that will always be represented in the generations.”

What’s unique is how a versatile living pace is based on societal ways.
“Our generation, and me, specifically, am always going a million miles an hour. I’m always multi-tasking, and doing 25 things at once. It’s a blessing and a curse. They’re [seniors] not like that so when they’re coming to the clubhouse and we see them in the community, they stop, pause, and have intentional, very present conversations with you,” Hayden says. “It’s such a nice way to be reminded of being present and listening to people and talking. … It shows us that we should slow down and be present with each other because life is short.”

Living in this type of community is good for the seniors too, giving them a sense of purpose, and keeping them healthy and active while engaged in the various activities New Life Village offers. It isn’t a new concept; the U.S. is just late to the game. For years Europe has been designing similar communities by incorporating assisted living facilities with college kids, having seniors come into daycare facilities, etc.

To better understand the need, consider these statistics listed on the New Life Village website:
  • Florida is 3rd in the U.S., behind California and Texas with 22,781 children in foster care;
  • Hillsborough County is #1 and Pinellas County is #2 in Florida for the number of children placed in foster care;
  • As of January 2020: 
         -- 2,366 children were in foster care in Hillsborough County
         -- 2,484 children were in foster care in Pinellas and Pasco counties
By going to the Take Action tab on the New Life Village website, you can help them get a step closer in finishing their building campaign or make a donation. For example, $25 a month provides a senior participation in their onsite wellness program for the entire year, letting them choose from weekly yoga classes, tai-chi classes, theatre trips, and more. 

Being a part of this community has given Hayden the chance to watch these children grow up, get stronger, heal, and gain confidence in the person they are. 

“From a holistic perspective, it’s just brilliant as it provides a holistic healing context for both the seniors and the families of the kids,” Hayden says. 

It’s a beautiful mixture of culture and perspectives that come with time and age, together in one, safe place. In a home. 

For more information check out their website, Facebook page, and watch their story on CBN.
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Read more articles by Lauren Wong.

Lauren Wong is a graduate of the University of Tampa with a degree in journalism who is freelancing while she looks for a full-time job. Originally from the Chicago area, she enjoys travel and aspires to be a travel photojournalist. During the summer of 2019, she worked for Premier Travel Media in Chicago and as a correspondent for Input Fort Wayne, another Issue Media group online magazine based in Indiana. She loves spending time outdoors camping, kayaking, and taking pictures.