Foster kids get a team of surrogate grandparents at Bridge Meadows

From her second-story apartment balcony, Juanita Laush, 93, enjoys the sounds of children at play in courtyard of the Bridge Meadows housing complex in North Portland.

A young girl looks up and calls out, “Hi Juanita!” and from above, Laush waves back.

“They come and they hug me and sometimes they talk,” she said. “Sometimes they come to my door and say, ‘I want to read to you.’ I’m just the resident grandma.”

This is what’s missing from most senior housing facilities: Kids.

But here, at the nonprofit Bridge Meadows, foster children, their adoptive families, and senior citizens live in close proximity, with each generation benefiting.

Parents get a support network to help with babysitting and mentorship. Children get access to after school programs and a team of surrogate grandparents. Seniors — called “elders” in the community — get stable housing and a sense of purpose.

“We are the pioneers of community, intergenerational living,” Laush said. “Everybody’s saying this is the answer to aging gracefully.”

As the Portland location celebrates six years, Bridge Meadows is preparing to open a second housing complex in Beaverton this fall, and gearing up for its annual fundraising luncheon on May 10. While grants and public funding help build the housing complexes, it’s mostly private donations and rent that cover day-to-day operations.

In North Portland, Bridge Meadows houses 28 people age 55 and older, who live among nine families with 29 children – 25 of whom have been or are in the process of being adopted from foster care.

Older residents pass a background check and are required by their lease to donate at least 100 hours of time per quarter to volunteering in the community. That may be babysitting, mentoring, leading arts and crafts projects or cooking community meals.

For elders like Laush, that generally means just being available to the children. Others like Dave Pickrell, 68, help kids with homework, walk them to school or take them to sporting events.

“I have never felt this full as a person,” said Pickrell, one of only three elder men at Bridge Meadows. (Like many senior citizen homes, there are more grandmas than grandpas.)

“I had just retired and I was one of the victims at the end of the last recession and I lost my house,” he said. “Everything I thought I was going to have, I thought, oh man, now what am I going to do?”

Bridge Meadows seemed to solve both problems: Elder apartments range from $600 to $750 a month and are reserved for those with limited incomes. And he stays busy, often taking the kids to soccer games.

“It’s been a pleasure,” he said. “It’s been difficult sometimes, it’s been joyful, it’s been tearful, in good ways and bad ways.”

He gave a shrug and a half-smile. “It’s life.”

Bridge Meadows offers housing specifically to families adopting children out of foster care, with priority on those adopting sibling sets. And, it turns out, those most likely to adopt siblings are relatives, hoping to keep a family together in a time of crisis.

“Relatives who are adopting or becoming guardians of kids have a unique experience with foster care, because they still have relationships with the birth family, which can be challenging,” said Renee Moseley, associate director at Bridge Meadows. “They’re probably on a limited income, they’re often single women, and so their challenges are hard.”

They’re parents like Reba Chainey, who in 2015 adopted her two granddaughters, now ages 10 and 11.

“Bridge Meadows has been a godsend,” Chainey said. “I’m so thankful to be here. My granddaughters have grown in leaps and bounds, they’re sociable and they’re involved in so many different activities and just loving and happy.”

Communal spaces throughout the housing complex include spaces for art classes, a small library and a community kitchen and dining room. Every Wednesday is “Happiness Hour,” a weekly community dinner and activity time for which Chainey often prepares the meal.

During this week’s Happiness Hour, Julie Lawrence’s adopted son, Jayden, age 4, rode along the courtyard on his scooter, a red cape flapping behind him. Lawrence is mom to six kids, including her husband’s great niece and great nephew.

The Bridge Meadows community surrounds her with support.

“It’s the simple stuff, someone to watch my kids, but also other parents to talk to that are in the same place I’m at, or are familiar with my place that I’m in,” she said. Her children have a core of about four grandmas in the community whom they rely on regularly.

“And the grandmas that are involved with the kids, they love it. They live for it,” Lawrence said. “I’ve heard them say before they might not leave their house if they didn’t live here, but they get out for these kids.”

Unique, too, is the chance for children to make friends who have faced similar hardships.

“That’s the beauty of the community,” Moseley said. “They are with people who have traveled a similar journey and they don’t have to explain about being in foster care, they don’t have to explain about having a caretaker that is not their biological mom.”

The elders who come to Bridge Meadows receive training in dealing with children who have experienced trauma and instability. Initially, organizers thought that would be the biggest challenge for the community.

“We were worried that we would be having damaged children and we would have a lot of responsibility,” Laush said. In reality? She found children craving a loving environment.

“They came, all ages, with open arms, and from the beginning they were hugging the grandmas,” she said. “The children have learned how to take care of, how to relate to older people, and that’s kind of rare these days.”

But I can’t tell you this has been a purely Kumbaya experience. Rather, the difficulties for Bridge Meadows have been the same difficulties facing any close knit community. Three different generations have had to work out their differences when it comes to religion, politics, parenting styles and perceived gender roles.

But that’s life, right? It’s messy, complicated, and always more meaningful when you share it with others.

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