Clearfield County Area Agency on Aging

LECONTES MILLS — The former Girard-Goshen Elementary School and 23 acres of wooded land purchased in October by the Clearfield County Area Agency on Aging will be transformed into dementia-friendly pocket neighborhoods for people of all ages and abilities.

The villages will feature Dr. Bill Thomas’ robot-built Minka homes and the school building will be repurposed into a mixed-use commercial and arts engagement center.

According to previously published reports, the 26,748 square-foot school is located on nearly 24 acres at 8962 Gillingham Rd., Lecontes Mills. The school was built in 2002 and closed in 2010 because of issues with the structural integrity of the building’s roof.

CCAAA has partnered with Thomas’ New York-based advanced home-manufacturing company, Minka, and its Denmark-based architects AJGA, to develop the 60-home “Village of Hope” project based on Thomas’ intergenerational MAGIC model – multi-ability, multi-generational, inclusive community – co-created with the University of Southern Indiana.

Minka and MAGIC build off Thomas’s nearly 30 years of innovation as the founder of The Eden Alternative global non-profit, The Green House Project, the Senior Emergency Room and the ChangingAging movement.

“Our families are devastated by skyrocketing rates of Alzheimer’s disease because our communities, quite frankly, are not designed to include them and help them thrive,” said CCAAA Director Kathleen Gillespie. “We’re partnering with Dr. Thomas to build the Village of Hope to give families hope that people living with dementia can participate and enjoy life when they live in a community that welcomes and includes them,” she added.

The Village of Hope will include a mix of single family and multi-family homes featuring smart home technology, universal design accessibility and Minka’s rapid robotic manufacturing process. In order to create places where people living with dementia can thrive, Thomas says, “We must build communities that embrace people of different ages and abilities, rather than putting them in institutions just because they are frail or forgetful.

“I spent decades fighting to make the long-term care system better and created innovative alternatives such as ‘The Green House,’” Thomas said. “But I’ve also learned that people want real communities, not facilities,” he noted.

The project also includes repurposing the Girard-Goshen Elementary School, closed since 2010, into a community center featuring a mix of retail, health services and local creative arts engagement programs designed with community participation for both young and old, Gillespie said.

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The emphasis on arts engagement was determined in August 2018 in the first of a series of participatory design workshops led by Thomas’ team to invite the community, including people living with dementia, to lead design of the dementia-friendly community elements that would help them thrive.

“Each person lives with a unique set of physical and cognitive abilities, and every one of us needs to use those abilities to their fullest extent. The creative arts offer some amazing pathways for building relationships and communities,” said Thomas, who launched Minka after spending four years touring North America with a theatrical production called the ChangingAging Tour that performed in 128 cities.

The tour was sponsored by AARP and uses theatrical arts and participatory design to support age-friendly and dementia-friendly community development in the U.S. and Canada.

The Village of Hope draws on ChangingAging Tour’s mission to support people living with dementia, and their families, to overcome the social stigma associated with dementia, said Minka director Kavan Peterson, who co-founded ChangingAging and leads its age and dementia-friendly programs.

“For decades the only dementia story we’ve heard is one of loss and despair,” Peterson said. “But there is a new dementia story being told. It is a story of connection, expression, joy and growth. It is a story being told by people living with dementia who want you to know they are alive and they love life.”

The purchase of the school grounds and partnership with Thomas was approved by the CCAAA’s governing board of directors. The project will be developed and operated under its nonprofit subsidiary Mature Resources Inc, which specializes in innovative housing solutions.

“Alzheimer’s Disease has directly affected 400,000 Pennsylvanians and dementia has impacted all of us, directly or indirectly,” Gillespie said. “What the Village of Hope represents is not something new, it’s the oldest invention humans have created – community.”

Gillespie told The Progress in July that the project is expected to take three to five years to complete, depending on funding available.

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