Eheart, Brenda

Social Entrepreneur Honoree -

About Generations of Hope
Generations of Hope is an intentional intergenerational village filled with parents raising and adopting foster children and senior citizens volunteering to help support the kids and the community, in exchange for lowered rents. Hope Meadows, the first model, opened on a closed military base in Illinois in 1994, and now a dozen families live in the community, free of rent. In exchange, they agree to adopt three or four foster care system children who have slim chances of finding permanent homes. Those children, once the most difficult to place, boast a high 89% permanency rate. The Generation of Hope Development Program oversees the replication of the model.

About Brenda Eheart
Everything old is new again—or so the song says. Hope Meadows, the brainchild of Brenda Krause Eheart, PhD, is a new kind of community that has its roots in a lost way of life. Located in Rantoul, Illinois, it is an intentional multi-generational community in which residents come together to help raise the children and support each other through the life cycle.

It is up to us—everyone in this room, everyone in this state, everyone in this country—to change the future for the most vulnerable among us. And if we do not, who will?  – Brenda Eheart

In the early 1990s, Eheart was the director of the Developmental Child Care Program at the University of Illinois in Champaign. Much of her research had entailed studies of the foster care system in Illinois. The more she studied it, the more she became convinced there must be a better way. Of particular concern to Eheart was the fast-tracking Illinois was trying to do, bringing foster care kids into adoption without also providing the families the support they needed to make the transition successful. One day, Eheart sat in court and heard a judge grant a family’s request to undo their recent adoption. The child had left his home that morning for school belonging in a family; he was going to be picked up by state workers and told he was going to a foster home. Looking at the court records, Eheart realized this child shared a birthday with her own daughter. The coincidence struck a nerve: Eheart (who’s been described as “all vision and determination”) resolved to develop a completely different way of caring for our vulnerable kids.

The timing for Eheart’s epiphany was fortuitous, as a perfect storm was brewing. The Illinois Child Welfare System was reeling from the addition of more than 1,000 new children into the foster care system each month and staff turnover was high.[1] At about the same time, the US military was restructuring and bases across the country were being closed. When Eheart heard that the Chanute Air Force base near her, in Rantoul, was one of those slated for closure, she had the audacious idea that sections of the former base could be used as a neighborhood in which 15 foster families could live together (with the goal of adopting all of the foster children) and receive supportive services from the other adoptive parents in the community and from an on-site staff.

She successfully lobbied the state, thanks in part to the disarray at the Department of Child and Family Services, to award her $1,000,000 to put her plan into action. She also negotiated a waiver to have her newly established nonprofit, then called Hope for the Children, administer flat stipends to adoptive families rather than the more typical payments calculated per-child-per-day. The waiver was an important component of her effort to minimize the differences between foster/adoptive kids and other families in the surrounding neighborhood.

The Defense Department was much tougher for her to navigate as they weren’t accustomed to creative solutions and purchase offers from non-profit institutions. Negotiations were stalled for years until Eheart requested a presidential inquiry into the matter. Eight days later, the homes were hers for but a portion of the $1 million she’d been granted by the state—but there was a new problem. She had to purchase an 83-unit block of the base, not just the 15 homes she wanted.

Mulling over this new dilemma, Eheart had her second epiphany with respect to Hope Meadows. Remembering something she’d once heard Gray Panthers leader Maggie Kuhn say, Eheart lit upon the idea of providing seniors with housing at below-market rates. In exchange, the seniors would be asked to volunteer with the Hope Meadows community. Nearly 20 years later, the concept of multi-generational living in community is the simple strength of the Hope Meadows model.

Today at Hope Meadows, 9-12 families live in four- to six-bedroom homes, with reduced rent, on the former base. In exchange, they agree to adopt at least three or four foster care system children who have slim chances of finding permanent homes. One parent in each household is hired by Hope Meadows as a staff member and paid a salary, benefits, and retirement—as opposed to receiving direct payments for food and housing from DCFS. “We didn’t want the kids to be commodities,” explains Dr. Martha Power, senior fellow with the Generations of Hope Development Corporation. That parent is also required to be a stay-at-home parent.

The 60 or so seniors (many of whom have traveled from across the country to retire and live out their days at Hope Meadows) volunteer at least six hours a week to tutor the kids, help the families, or help in the running of the community. During an average week, Hope Meadows’ seniors contribute 274 hours of volunteer services (valued at $300,000) to the community. To help ease the end-of-life transition for the seniors who come to Hope Meadows to stay, Hope House, a supportive, community-assisted living environment for the frailest of the seniors, opened in the spring of 2014.

Because the guiding principles of Hope Meadows encourage community members to become problem solvers rather than recipients of service, there is no need for a large staff overseeing the operation. There are five staff members: the director, a caseworker, a casework supervisor, an office manager and a maintenance man. Two part-time therapists round out the staff.

The rich community life at Hope Meadows is replete with traditional programs and services (therapy, case management, tutoring, after-school programs) and less traditional programs and services, like camps, picnics, special neighborhood events, and having caring “grandparents” nearby. The Intergenerational Center—the cultural, social, and education hub of the neighborhood—has computer rooms, a library stocked with parenting materials, and a multi-purpose room in which weekly senior coffees, potlucks, educational programs, and parties are held.

The families and seniors migrating to Rantoul, Illinois, to live in this special community are a testament to the success of Eheart’s model. That success is further demonstrated more concretely in Hope Meadows’ permanency rate, which is 89%–compared with a 56% average permanency rate among comparable kids in Illinois over the past two decades (the permanency rate reflects the long-term stability of a child-care placement through adoption or permanent reassignment into the birth home, as opposed to staying in the foster care program and being shuffled from home to home). Seventy-two percent of the families moving into Hope Meadows would not have adopted their foster children were it not for the Hope Meadows system of support. Additionally, 100% of the children who have made Hope Meadows their home have received their high school diploma or GED, or are on track to do so. (It bears repeating that these are children who were among the hardest to place when they joined a family at Hope Meadows.) It is estimated that keeping a child in high school through graduation saves the state $300,000–$500,000.[2]) In another strong indicator for the value of Hope Meadow’s model, 100% of parents feel their kids are safe in the Hope neighborhood.

Hope Meadows has developed an economically viable model. Rental income from the seniors makes up a reliable and steady income stream. State and federal funding fluctuates. When families first move to Hope Meadows and take in foster children, income comes to Hope Meadows from the DCFS payments for the children in foster care. When the children are adopted, federal and state subsidies (paid to families of children with special needs) increase and help counter the loss of the foster care financing. Earned income from investments and traditional fundraising also contribute to the budget bottom line.

In 2006, a little more than 10 years after Hope Meadows was formed, Eheart founded the Generations of Hope Development Corporation (GHDC) to oversee the replication of the Hope Meadows concept—called the Generations of Hope Community (GHC). A small group of a half dozen researchers work with Eheart to analyze existing programs and create working guidelines for the dozens of communities across the country that are interested in creating contiguous neighborhoods of intergenerational living like the one modeled at Hope Meadows.

Each community’s needs are unique, and each state and municipality has its own rules regarding real estate development and building codes—creating the need for an adaptable model for replication. At the most basic level all GHC-inspired neighborhoods share the following characteristics:

  • Seniors as volunteers
  • Geographically contiguous neighborhood
  • Organized around a social challenge
  • Three generations live together in community

There are currently four programs inspired by the example of Hope Meadows in operation across the country, with dozens more in the planning stages. GHDC does not fund any of these new sites but serves to facilitate their creation with advice and guidance on site development, program development strategies, core community outcomes and ongoing research and analysis.

Generations of Hope communities have created a model where the community itself is the intervention rather than the more common model of intervention in community. This kind of intergenerational community living has transformative power. More than two-thirds of the Hope Meadows seniors responded in a recent survey that their health had been positively impacted by their move to Hope Meadows. Creating that sense of purpose in retirement is just one of the GHC model’s transformative abilities. “This is something that just means so much to us,” remarks David Netterfield, a senior living at Hope Meadows with his wife, Carol. “We just love telling people about it. As we say, it’s not quite heaven. It’s Hope.” His voice oozes emotion when he recalls one of his frequent visits to Hope Meadows before making the final decision to move there, “One of the teens came home from school and saw us there AGAIN. He came right up to me and said, ‘Will you please move here so you can be my grandparents?’” Indeed, they did become close when the Netterfields moved to Hope Meadows in 2008.

Program design that is responsive and evolves as new situations develop is a basic principle of Generations of Hope. As first conceived by Eheart, Hope Meadows was initially meant to be a supportive community for foster parents interested in moving to adoption. Quickly, it became a multi-generational neighborhood organized around the kids. Two decades later, new GHC neighborhoods are often advertised as retirement communities with a purpose—service to vulnerable populations. Those populations can be hard-to-place foster children, but they might also be kids exiting foster care or the juvenile system, parents re-entering society from prison or drug treatment programs, isolated single-parent families, homeless families and individuals, or military families facing instability.

What’s in the future for Hope Meadows? Currently, the organization is the process of targeting the problem at its source by providing assistance to young families who lack the economic means to keep their children out of foster care. At its core, Hope Meadows is about helping kids to be kids, giving them stable homes and families. The new program should fit right in.

Regardless of the social challenge that brings a community together, it is a common and shared sense of purpose that weaves it together. A sense of connection and embededness and the development of meaningful relationships turn out to be some of our best societal problem solvers, as evidenced by the first GHC community, Hope Meadows (which is celebrating its 20th anniversary come September).

Affectionately called a “burning furnace of good intention” by a colleague, Eheart’s impassioned vision for a better future for our country’s vulnerable children is proving that what is old is new again: it really does take a village to raise a child.

[1] Hopping, PhD, David, Beyond the Caring State: Civic Ideals and the Architecture of Human Development, Thesis for Graduate Degree in Sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2002.

[2] GHDC, Changemakers Application, Accessed April 7, 2011.


[August 2011]