What is a building other than just bricks and mortar placed upon a foundation and arranged in a specific design? Making a community is much more of a nebulous task and the specifics of how each community is formed varies from city to city, state to
state and country to country. The residents at Vernon House, an apartment-style senior residence, have formed a community that fosters individuality as well as a sense of unity.
Six years ago the Colonial Revival style buildings were simply another set of vacant, unused property lining 33rd Street only adding to the blight that chokes the streets of Strawberry Mansion. In 2005, after extensive renovations by the Pennrose Properties Management Company, LLC, the building reopened and became a home to those aged 62 and over. What sets this building apart from the other buildings in the area is the people who inhabit it.
“At Vernon House we have ministers, college students, sorority and fraternity members, deacons and deaconesses, and everyday people like you and I,” says Asia Darring, Social Services Coordinator for the building. While Darring does facilitate some of the functions around the building she says the vast majority are conceived, planned and executed by the residents themselves. “The residents run all the main activities for the building, especially the fun ones like bingo, card games and movie night,” says Darring.
“We all work together to make sure things get done and people feel welcome here,” says resident Carolyn Braxton. One of the ways the residents take care of one another is through the Sunshine Committee, who visit new residents and invite them to participate in activities.
While moving to a residence like Vernon House can be daunting for some, the residents here try to make the adjustment as painless a process as possible. “The people here made me feel so at home and I have only been here four months,” says resident Phyllis Brandon.
While people maintain a sense of independence here, there is also a real dependency that one mostly finds with families. “One of our residents still drives and he takes many people to their doctor appointments or wherever they have to go,” says Darring. Good works at Vernon House extend beyond driving people around the city. “Some residents know that their neighbor is not doing well health-wise, so they’ll take them under their wing and cook their meals and tidy up around the apartment,” Darring adds.
Darring does her part in making the building feel like home and reaches out to those residents who need help. The building has its own community food pantry where other residents who have a little extra food in their cupboard can donate canned and dry goods. Residents who don’t have enough food can take from the same pantry their neighbor has donated to. “If those residents need more help than the building can provide it is my duty to connect them to a community food box or another organization like Philabundance,” says Darring.
While some residents maybe struggling financially, most are blossoming personally. Such is the case with Phyllis Brandon.
Brandon dropped out of high school after the first year to get married and raise her family. “I have eight children, 18 grandchildren and 1o great-grandchildren,” says Brandon. As Brandon went through life she assumed many roles: mother, wife, sister and grandmother, but those roles meant pleasing other people. “Now, this right now, this is my time,” boasts Brandon.
Spending her time pursuing her passions, Brandon now feels like she is finally doing something for herself after doing for others for so long. “I love drawing, painting, writing poetry, studying my scripture and sharing my life and hobbies with the other people here,” says Brandon, a devout Jehovah’s Witness.
Brandon refers to me as “child” as she proudly shows me her framed artwork that adorns most of the wall space in her apartment. “I know life is hard, I know that, but life is about learning and changing. For a long, long time I was a good mommy and wife, now is the time for me to be a good Phyllis,” Brandon says as points her index finger into her chest with every word.
Self development and self improvement is a large part of what Darring strives to achieve at Vernon House. “We bring in seminars to help people manage their health and well being,” says Darring. Vernon House recently had an exercise program, a yard sale, a health fair, and a trip to the Constitution Center to view the ‘America I Am’ exhibit,” says Darring.
While some residents may take advantage of Darring’s services and some don’t, what they can’t avoid is the connection Darring and the rest of the staff make with residents. “We spend a third of our lives here working with them and when something goes wrong it affects all of us, and when something goes well it affects all of us. And when someone here passes away, we all grieve because we, in effect, have become friends and a family,” says Darring.
Vernon House is located next to The Bus at the Hut, which is a senior-friendly restaurant that hopes to help draw residence into the community.
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