SF Village seeks to construct network of services for seniors

by Jonathan Farrell

The non-profit San Francisco Village initiated its services to the public in January of 2009, but that was after almost two years of preparation and research.

"We actually began getting things together in 2007, said Rev. Mary Moore Gaines, the former pastor at St. Jame's Episcopal Church. "But, because of the economy, the recession, it took some time to get things all together and going."

Gaines, a pastor at St. James for 20 years, recently retired. She is now making SF Village her focus.

"We have about 110 members who have joined the community at SF Village," she said. "We are aiming to grow to over 350 or more and hope to inspire other neighborhoods in the City to form a village of their own."

Gaines, who based the idea of the SF Village on the concept of Beacon Hill in Boston, Massachusetts, sees this as a movement that is going nationwide.

Basically, it's building a community of people who are able to band together to help each other. They do this by creating a "center" where people can gather, get information and support each other's needs. Members then look to other members as well as to a network of local partnerships that unite to coordinate the fulfillment of those needs. These partnerships are made up of outreach agencies that help people get the care and support they need to remain in their own homes.

"We are not trying to reinvent the wheel, so to speak," said Gaines. "We want to tap into what is already there to help build and strengthen our community."

SF Village shares office space on Geary Boulevard with the SF Institute on Aging.

Gaines and volunteers Mary Ann and Phil Faris recently visited the home of Michelle Vignes, a senior living in Noe Valley.

"Yes, this is not in the Richmond District, but right now we want to help as many people in the City as we can," said Gaines. "Once the concept catches on we hope to form a village for each of the neighborhoods in San Francisco."

Vignes' little cottage-like home is filled with all the accomplishments of a rich career as a freelance photographer, documentary-photo journalist and artist. At age 77 she is now wheelchair bound, but has no plans on leaving her home.

"Take a look around and see the view," said Vignes as she pointed out to a wooden deck filled with plants, flowers and a spectacular view of the City. "I don't want to leave all this, this is my home."

The Farises were awestruck as they surveyed the view. They began asking Vignes questions about her life, including how long she had been in the City.

"Over 40 years or so," she replied, with a French accent.

But what brought her to San Francisco?" She laughed as she gave her answer because Vignes had been living and working in Paris, and it was hard to leave.

"I was in love at that time and followed that love here to San Francisco," she said.

When the love fizzled she stayed, carrying on her freelance photography work.

"I worked with some of the best in the business," Vignes said.

Her dinette table has several photo-essay books. One was filled with luminaries of San Francisco's blues scene in the Fillmore and the other was a very poignant documentation of the Native American occupation of Alcatraz in 1969.

The Farises were enthralled with Vignes' work. She then asked them to help her find a recipe for ratatouille, her favorite French dish. Her cookbooks sit comfortably in her little library in her living room. Even though Vignes has someone to help her at night, she needs someone to help during the day.

"I need someone to drive me to appointments and for errands," she said.

Vignes said some outreach services are good, but they can be expensive. SF Village volunteers have helped Michelle in a number of ways, including helping to replace a worn out refrigerator and helping to arrange transportation so she can attend Village events and appointments as well as run errands.

Gaines hopes that forming strong membership bases in a community village will help to defer costs and make staying in one's home a viable and sustaining option for seniors.

"I am an advocate for seniors and people with disabilities to remain in their homes and maintain independence," Gaines said.

She, and many volunteers, like the Farises, are eager to make SF Village a success.

For more information about San Francisco Village, call (415) 387-1375 or go to the website at www.sfvillage.org.