When 63-year-old Doris Fowler's husband died almost two years ago, she wanted to downsize, and her son offered to have her move in with his family in Bennington.
But that would take her far from one of her favorite pastimes — bingo — and her friends in north Omaha.
So instead, she decided on a new cottage behind the former St. Richard School, joining a neighborhood with others her age. She was the third person to settle there, and now all 44 cottages are occupied, with a waiting list of 100.
Construction is underway elsewhere on the St. Richard site, 4318 Fort St., and by the end of the year, Fowler could be playing bingo in a renovated senior activity center in the school basement. When she dines at the new center, she's likely to be served by teenagers being helped by a crisis program. And eventually she might find herself volunteering at an area day care center.
It's all part of a plan by a pair of nonprofit agencies to create the North Omaha Intergenerational Human Service Campus, a $29 million project (including a $3million maintenance endowment) that is designed to promote connections between senior citizens in the cottages and those participating in other programs that will be housed nearby.
“The main idea with the project is that we're going to mix these populations as much as we can to leverage the generations and the mutual benefits,” said Heartland Family Service Executive Director John Jeanetta. “When we do that now, it's always an awesome experience for everybody.”
Heartland Family Service plans a new home for its Family Works residential treatment program for pregnant women and mothers struggling with addiction in the remaining building of the former Park Crest Apartments, 48th and Sahler Streets.
About a mile away, the cottages are the first completed leg of a joint effort between Heartland Family Service and the Holy Name Housing Corp. Elsewhere on the nine-acre former St. Richard School site, a senior citizen activity center, a health clinic, a youth crisis center and community gardens are planned.
The school closed in 2009 after nearly 50 years in operation. Much of the school will house Heartland Family Service's YouthLinks program, short-term housing for 10- to 18-year-olds who are recovering from crisis.
The basement will house an activity center for seniors, which will serve meals, host bingo, card games and tai chi to help with balance, Jeanetta said.
Demolition work has begun inside the rectory, which will eventually house Holy Name Housing Corp.'s administrative offices — now operating out of Holy Name School — and a community health center, which will offer physical examinations, blood pressure checks and other basic health care needs.
The project is being funded by federal and state new market tax credits that are designed as incentives for investors in low-income communities and about $11 million in private donations.
Jeanetta said the school should be completed by the end of the year and the makeover of the Park Crest Apartments building should be completed by mid-2015. Sister Marilyn Ross, executive director of Holy Name Housing Corp., said the rectory renovation would be completed by early summer of this year.
“We believe that high-density housing on that site would not be the thing to help the neighborhood, so we went with senior housing, and then met John,” Ross said. “We really believe these seniors have things to offer and the youth need the mentoring. I like the connection that's been made by Heartland between the generations.”
The senior activity center is currently housed in the basement of Heartland Family Service's central offices at 42nd and Francis Streets. The new center will allow for the program to serve many more people and more meals with the expanded space, Jeanetta said.
The Youth Links program currently operates out of Grace University in the old St. Joseph Hospital, Jeanetta said. The new setting is “very therapeutic,” he said. “The space there is going to significantly enhance what we're able to do programmatically for the kids,” he said. St. Richard, for example, has an indoor gym and an outdoor play area with a basketball court, neither of which is available at the current space.
The rectory, too, will serve Holy Name better than its current space in Holy Name School. “We need more room and the school needs the space,” Ross said.
The Park Crest project is still working its way through City Council approval after neighbors on Sprague Street filed a lawsuit against Heartland Family Service and the city because of the traffic and parking issues it could create.
In December, the two parties settled on a solution: moving the building's front door from the south side to the north side, which would move all traffic to and from the building to Sahler Street instead.
“I'm really appreciative the neighbors are helpful and gave us this chance to create plans that will work for everybody,” Jeanetta said.
The expanded Family Works program at Park Crest would provide housing for 32 families, more than tripling the size of the current program. It will also include an indoor play area with on-site child care for the families.
The completed senior cottages were rented to residents age 55 or older or disabled who earned 60 percent or less of the median income and could pay $530 in rent as well as for utilities. “We made every effort, though, to keep the utilities down by installing geothermal (heating and cooling) on the site,” Ross said.
Roy Thompson, 51, moved into her cottage in the new neighborhood last September, just several houses down from Fowler.
“I love my house. It's a blessing to me,” said Thompson, who recently underwent a knee replacement and appreciates the lack of stairs.
“Everybody looks out for everybody here,” she said. “I'm really a quiet person. It is a good fit for me.”
Fowler is excited about the possibility of a bingo hall near her home.
“I really love it,” she said. “I think I'm just gonna die here.”