Brenda Eheart

Ashoka Fellow
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United States
Fellow since 2008
This description of Brenda Eheart's work was prepared when Brenda Eheart was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.

Introduction

In the U.S. child welfare system, children with the most tormented histories are least likely to be adopted. Brenda Eheart realized that older adults could offer the extra measure of time and care that families need to provide these children a permanent home and a chance to flourish. She has brought the older generation to the rescue and in the process helped youth, their new families, and elders gain a new lease on life.

The New Idea

Brenda has created a radical new approach to solving social problems by transforming the idea of an old-fashioned, close-knit neighborhood into a purposeful intervention. Brenda believes that, given the right circumstances, ordinary people of all ages will care for one another in ways that traditional social services cannot. Starting with foster care and adoption, she broke from conventional approaches by establishing Hope Meadows, an intentional community that is the primary intervention. Brenda recognized that abused and neglected children need both nurturing adoptive families and caring neighborhoods in which to be supported, that many older adults want lives infused with meaning and purpose, and that a community’s economic development strategies should emerge from its social purpose. She is changing the way we think about social service delivery, retirement, and community development.
Hope Meadows became the prototype of Generations of Hope Communities (GHCs). GHCs offer an alternative approach to the myriad programs that have not produced significant social change. GHCs are purposeful, multigenerational neighborhoods where the entire community organizes around a potentially long-term social challenge with which some residents are struggling. Unlike community-building efforts, Hope Meadows is not an end in itself but a vehicle for action. While social services tend to be narrow in focus, deficit-oriented, constrained by rules, and provided to or for someone, a GHC generates support for its members and their problems on an ongoing basis and builds on individual and family assets. Led by the people who choose to care for and rely on each other, this holistic approach offers healing, hope, and love to those who need it most.
Brenda intends to establish these communities, where “one generation’s needs become another’s salvation,” as a powerful new way for society to address daunting social challenges. She established the Generations of Hope Corporation (GHDC) to help other communities address the problems they face and improve the prospects of the vulnerable populations they include, such as teen mothers, children in the juvenile justice system, and homeless youth.

The Problem

In any given year about 800,000 children spend time in foster care. One third of the children who enter the child welfare system will never go home to their birth parents or be adopted. Older children are least likely to be adopted: 50 percent of children who remain in foster care are age ten or above. Most of the adoptions of older children are unsuccessful, as families are unprepared to cope with children who present emotional, developmental, and physical challenges. And each failed adoption further undermines the child’s self-esteem and outlook on life. Some children are in the foster care system for years, going from one temporary placement to another; others beginning their lives in foster care and staying until they age out of the system at eighteen. These children are ten to fifteen times more likely to be abused in state care than in their own homes. The child welfare system offers financial support to foster parents, but child subsidies can stop if families adopt the children, creating a disincentive to adopt, and attracting opportunists who care more about the money than the children. Also, some states continue to provide medical, psychological, and educational assistance to children who stay in foster care after age eighteen; again if they’re adopted, these benefits may stop, leaving families to cope with post-adoption challenges completely on their own.



Social service agencies provide basic material support and services to society’s neediest people, but while those efforts are helpful, they are not solving the conditions that perpetuate chronic social problems. Two groups in particular—abused and neglected children, and isolated, unwanted elders—are often pitted against each other. Yet dealing with both requires personal connections that depend on a supportive environment to succeed. Research shows that the block, the neighborhood, and the community all matter. Responsible adults are needed to support vulnerable children. But this is not easily accomplished in a society where elders are sidelined and whole neighborhoods barely see an adult during most of the day.

The Strategy

Before establishing GHDC, Brenda was the founder and CEO of Generations of Hope (GOH), a citizen organization licensed by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. To obtain the initial site for the community, she persuaded the state legislature to give her $1M to acquire and renovate married soldiers’ housing on a decommissioned Air Force base in Rantoul. After battling the Pentagon for two years to acquire the five-block site (there was no precedent for releasing property to a nonprofit) she sent a fax to President Clinton and within a week had clearance to buy 82 housing units for $215,000. In 1994 the first families moved into Hope Meadows with a shared purpose: to address the problem of children adrift in the foster care system. Today Hope Meadows has grown into a community of 150 people that supports the healthy development of 48 children. Each family adopts up to four children, often sibling groups. These families—a blend of foster care, adopted, and biological children—live rent-free in a six-bedroom home. Each family’s goal is to adopt the children in their care. 89 percent of the children achieve what Brenda says all parents want for their children: to be in a family that will always be there for them.

The children taken in at Hope Meadows are often those making the worst kind of headlines: Babies left abandoned, or children as young as four or five taking primary responsibility for younger siblings. Some of their histories are so horrifying that the child welfare system denies access to their files for fear that no one will take them into their homes. Nearly all the children there are from severely dysfunctional homes. Most are older children with emotional, physical, and developmental problems. The kin-like support they receive works miracles. And the families and elders that support the children also find purpose, value, and renewed enthusiasm in their own lives.

Families who apply to Hope Meadows must be willing to adopt special needs children for life, must meet state standards, and must go through a stringent screening program, including fingerprinting and in-depth interviews. 90 percent are rejected because they lack the maturity or motivation to provide a wholesome, permanent home. Parents who are accepted must be licensed by the state and go through rigorous training. The community is involved in deciding whether applicants will fit into their neighborhood. Ethnicity and race are not factors; the children accept the different skin color of their adoptive parents and their “grandparents” just as they accept the difference in their ages.

To promote adoption, Brenda arranged to have the state pay Hope Meadows for each child placed there. The funds are used to pay one parent’s salary per family and provide health insurance and retirement benefits. Most importantly, this salary continues when a family permanently adopts the child in its care.

Forty senior households pay below-market rent for a 3-bedroom apartment in return for six hours a week of volunteer work. These older adults become surrogate grandparents for the children, and extended family to the parents. The elders also provide friendship and support to each other. Many seniors arrive at Hope Meadows feeling alone and “washed up.” Not anymore. They step in to help children who arrive so wounded that they rarely smile. Hope Meadows seniors are in the neighborhood at all hours of the day. If a child falls off her bike or doesn’t show up after school, multiple grandparents move into action. For single parents especially, it can be a godsend to call on “grandma or grandpa” when they need some time for themselves.

The program director lives in the neighborhood and is available for emergencies, but residents manage most problems. The staff includes a family support specialist, a psychotherapist, a social worker, and a program coordinator. The community thus has little need for outside social services. Parents attend weekly educational programs on issues such as attachment, budgeting, and parenting teenagers. Residents are largely self-governing. There is no sense of hierarchy among residents and staff. Brenda finds that when the neighborhood is doing its job, the formal service systems around it are less pressed and more capable of making a difference.

Hope Meadows enjoys a $1.4M endowment; the property it owns is now valued at $5.6M. State funds cover 20 percent and rent from seniors provides 25 percent of the $725,000 annual operating budget. The program taps diverse revenue streams for the balance. And the cost per child, for a program that actually works, is only slightly more than state-provided foster care, and much less than the cost of incarceration.

Hope Meadows represents a demonstration site of a new concept, a Generations of Hope Community, (GHC), which Brenda calls a “purposeful network of relationships.” To replicate Hope Meadows’ success, Brenda and her colleagues identified the following principles: Each GHC is created to address a specific social challenge; has an evolving program design that draws on experience and responds to the community’s changing needs; spans three or more generations; has a formal program that engages older people as the community’s volunteers; has professional staff who guide but do not govern; addresses economic issues as they support the community’s needs; has a physical design that facilitates interpersonal relationships and aging in place; and aims for cohesion but not insularity. These principles allow the GHC concept to spread using the GOH philosophy but without a formulaic, top-down approach. As GOH develops the GHC field, it will maintain the small size and flexibility that are critical to success. In 2006 the Kellogg Foundation provided $3.9M for a National Technical Assistance Center to speed replication.

The GHDC team, which includes a former Public Private Ventures replication expert as a consultant, is working with Portland, OR, Tampa, and Dayton to pilot the GHC concept in both urban and rural settings. Atlanta, Orange County and Santa Rosa, CA, and western Massachusetts have also acquired land for GHC inspired communities; others are in the wings. GHDC helps new sites through each step of the development process. Because citizen organizations have difficulty finding support for this exploratory phase, GHDC and the Kellogg Foundation teamed up with Shore Bank, which will administer a $4M revolving loan fund to help prospective GHCs finance up-front costs. As sites obtain loans from an established bank, they will gain the credibility to secure other capital. GHDC will advise the first pilot programs, which in turn will share learnings with new sites to jump-start the next wave of GHCs.

As the movement grows, GHDC will be better able to change systems and policies to support small, intentional communities as a critical means of meeting social challenges. Brenda and her team will: develop a training program; produce a handbook; create a network including media, academics, policymakers, and GHC developers; advocate for public policy changes in housing and community development, retirement, child welfare, juvenile justice, and education; and extend the GHC concept to other populations (e.g., working with Stanford to address the mental health and educational needs of post-incarcerated youth).

Three strategies have the most potential to finance GHC operations and help them achieve economic viability: 1) private charitable sources that target and/or support the population/social issue being addressed by the GHC; 2) using a cooperative housing model in which residents have an equity stake; and 3) using surplus revenue from a larger development that includes affordable housing and small businesses.

GHDC plans to achieve sustainability primarily from fees for technical assistance and training (which will increase with the number of sites), grants, and contracts. Fees will generate more revenue if GHDC becomes a developer itself instead of relying on development experts where GHCs are emerging. Grants and contracts will provide most of the revenue for the next few years. Current resources include almost $5M from the Kellogg Foundation (plus $4M for the loan fund).

The Person

Brenda knows what it means to come from a loving family and a small town where it feels like everybody knows each other. She grew up in the 1950s on a dairy farm in upstate New York, near a community of 100 people. Her grandfather lived on the farm next door. Brenda and her twin brother started school at a one-room schoolhouse, and then were bused to a school nearby. Her parents hadn’t gone to college, but raised Brenda to believe she could do anything she wanted. Her dad taught her to be comfortable talking to anyone. She credits him for a stubborn streak that serves her well as she “bucks the system.” She was close to her mom, a traditional housewife, and planned to follow in her footsteps. Brenda was always empathetic to people in need. After earning a home economics degree, she moved to Chicago where she worked to help residents of public housing with child development and parenting. This was her first exposure to inner-city poverty, the lives of children born into that environment, and the racial and economic disparities in our society.

Brenda married an engineer and traveled the world with him. During this time she volunteered at an orphanage in Mexico. Back in the U.S., she and her husband pursued advanced degrees at the University of Wisconsin. Brenda earned her PhD in child development and joined the faculty of Temple University, directing a program that placed student interns in the child welfare system. She and her husband welcomed their own baby girl, and later adopted a son from an orphanage in Peru. Brenda spent two years at Temple teaching courses on “children in poverty.” The family moved to Illinois, where she accepted a post at the University of Illinois as director of the Developmental Child Care Program and continued at the university, establishing Generations of Hope while with the Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

Ten years before she conceived the idea of Hope Meadows, Brenda overcame a life-threatening disease. From that point on she was willing to go to the top to change unfair or harmful practices. After studying what happened to foster children and the families who adopted them, Brenda saw that the system was a disaster, and imagined her own children in such a system. When politicians searching for alternatives called for government-run orphanages, the idea of warehousing needy young people put Brenda over the edge. She decided to do something for children who couldn’t go home or be adopted, and came up with the idea for Hope Meadows. She heard Maggie Kuhn suggest giving college students reduced rent to live with and help elderly residents. Brenda adapted the idea, offering older adults below-market rent for helping families care for troubled children. That made Hope Meadows possible, and led to its success. Sociologist Dr. David Hopping observed, “She combined overwhelmed foster families, fixed-income seniors, and a few professional staff with some of the most egregiously abused and neglected children—yet all seem to be thriving.”

From the start Hope Meadows attracted a constant stream of visitors and national media, including Oprah Winfrey and Nightline. Although programs had started using the model on their own, Brenda turned down a major grant for replication in 1997, because Hope Meadows was still evolving. Seniors were aging and children becoming teens. The community lost some members, and rallied to help others through illnesses. By 2005, Brenda felt an obligation to help other communities use the model. She and her colleagues defined the Generations of Hope Community concept, and developed a replication plan. Brenda stepped down as executive director of Hope Meadows to lead the GHC movement, helping communities use this powerful model to address the needs of its most vulnerable members and come together to solve pressing social problems.