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New intergenerational center is on mission to bridge gap between Grand Rapids' oldest, youngest

The new Bethlehem Intergenerational Center, formerly Hill Child Development Center, now offers open senior enrollment for full day programming to serve up to 35 seniors per day.
Bethlehem Intergenerational Center Director Sue Davidson (left) and Pastor Jay Schrimpf (right) pose in the new "Rose Room."

Bethlehem Intergenerational Center Director Sue Davidson (left) and Pastor Jay Schrimpf (right) pose in the new "Rose Room." /Marjorie Steele

The lounge section of the Rose Room at the new Bethlehem Intergenerational Center

The lounge section of the Rose Room at the new Bethlehem Intergenerational Center /Marjorie Steele

The Rose Room's dining area at the new Bethlehem Intergenerational Center

The Rose Room's dining area at the new Bethlehem Intergenerational Center /Marjorie Steele

Bethlehem Lutheran Church made the decision to expand its Hill Child Development Center (Hill CDC) into a multi-wing Intergenerational Center in the same way the church has made similarly landmark changes in the past: as a congregation.

The conversation began about two years ago, when Pastor Jay Schrimpf and the congregation began asking themselves, “What’s the next big thing?” More specifically: what's the next big way to fulfill their mission to be in service to the local community?

That next big thing has officially opened as the new Bethlehem Intergenerational Center, formerly Hill CDC, now offering open senior enrollment for full day programming to serve up to 35 seniors per day, in addition to the 45-60 children it serves currently. The center’s two wings - the Senior Wing and the Early Childhood Wing - are located in the same building, connected by the church’s main lobby for easy access between the two wings. 

“We call it ‘the pathway,’ because the kids started calling it that,” says Sue Davidson, Director of Hill CDC. “And the name is perfect, because a pathway goes both ways - it brings us together. It won’t just be the kids visiting the Senior Wing; our elder friends will come to visit the kids’ classrooms as well.”

In addition to redeveloping the Senior Wing into an ADA-compliant facility, the Center has hired two new program managers to oversee Early Childhood and Senior Care, a professionally trained chef to serve both wings, and will hire Senior Care support staff to scale with senior enrollment.

While many of the intergenerational centers in other areas of the country follow a “co-located” model, in which two separate organizations collaborate, Bethlehem Intergenerational Center is one unified organization by design.

“We’ve been intentional about creating a model that builds real relationships, where the kids and seniors can spend real time,” says Davidson. “We’ve worked hard to make sure we’re all one.” Newly hired Senior Care staff have already logged hours in the childrens’ classrooms, to familiarize themselves with Early Childhood programming.

The goal of the new Center: to improve the quality of life of the community’s youngest and oldest. Research indicates that for seniors, spending time in supervised day programming with children reduces the need for medication use, instances of falls and hospitalization, and generally improves quality of life. For children, routinely interacting with seniors helps them to develop mutual respect for limitations, normalizes differences between people, and allows for real quality time with older adults in an era when quality time with parents can be very limited.

All of which fits neatly into the mission of the Bethlehem Lutheran congregation.

In 2007, the Bethlehem Lutheran congregation iterated their pattern of taking bold, mission-driven steps, when it moved from its historic home in a Gothic Revival building on Prospect into a renovated parking garage in downtown’s Heartside district - smack in the center of the city’s largest population of homeless people. The congregation chose to let go of their beautiful (and deeply nostalgic) building in order to move next door to the community they felt driven to serve.

While the congregation’s decision in 2007 may have ruffled many parishioners’ feathers, the opening of Bethlehem Intergenerational Center received unanimous support.

When the congregation brainstormed what the “next big thing” would be two years ago, two main options rose to the surface: 1) to expand the existing Hill CDC, or 2) to open an intergenerational center which would provide quality care to both children and seniors.

Bethlehem Lutheran’s Hill CDC has been a staple ministry of the congregation since 1971, proudly displaying its accreditation through the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) - which is widely considered the “gold standard” for preschool accreditations. Hill CDC offers financial aid to its clients based on income.

Despite the longstanding success of Hill CDC, Davidson knew that expanding it wouldn’t help the church fulfill its mission. “If we became any bigger, then we couldn’t have the kind of personal relationships with our clients that are so important,” she says.

The intergenerational center, then, was the logical next step. Davidson and Schrimpf made in person visits to four intergenerational sites across the country as they investigated the best model for the new center. Grand Rapids’ DDA provided $50,000 in assistance to cover a portion of the costs associated with ADA-compliant redevelopment. 

The church itself has donated over six figures to support the venture - a hefty tithe from a congregation of just 225 parishioners.

Candidates for Senior Care at the Center are adults aged 65+ who “need adult help throughout the day,” says Schrimpf. This may range from adults who are living in care facilities, to those who live semi-independently in their homes with some help from family or caregivers.

Vertical gardens are being installed on the side of the building, as an ergonomic area for kids and seniors to garden together.

As for the Early Childhood Wing, the youngest clients of the new Center are ready to make new friends in the “Rose Room” - i.e. Senior Wing. Hill CDC kids were actively engaged throughout the construction process, and have been learning about what to expect in their new elder friends.

Schrimpf admits that, being a man past his youth who loves children and seldom sees his grandchildren, he can’t help but see a personal benefit to the program.

“What a gift it would be,” he says, “if in 15 years and I’m struggling with my health, I could spend my days with those kids.”

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