A Family of Neighbors

UPDATED 11/06/2000 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/06/2000 at 01:00 AM EST

Seven years ago, Elmer Davis and his wife, Marjorie, were deep in retirement boredom in the sunny state of Florida. "I was just vegetating," says Elmer, a former machinist. At about the same time, in central Illinois, a 2½-year-old girl called Keri was placed in foster care after suffering extreme neglect at home. "Keri was a zombie," recalls Michelle Roberts, 29, the foster mother who eventually adopted the toddler. "She didn't talk at all."

These days they don't come much chattier than 9-year-old Keri or busier than 82-year-old Elmer. On a recent afternoon, Keri, shiny ponytail swinging, wheels her bicycle two doors down and into Elmer's driveway. "Hi, Grandpa Davis," she says. "Hi, Tickles!" he answers, using a nickname that makes her giggle. After adjusting the handlebars and seat, Davis sends Keri on her way. "It's fixed," he says, smiling. "Now scat!"

It's no accident that Keri and Davis both live in the tree-lined subdivision of Hope Meadows in Rantoul, Ill., a community created by Brenda Krause Eheart expressly for those whom society often ignores. "You have these two marginalized groups—foster kids, who people think drain the system of dollars, and seniors, who felt all washed up and unneeded," says Eheart, 56, professor of child development at the University of Illinois. "Here, they're meeting each other's needs. It's phenomenal."

So is the irrepressible Eheart. Her one-of-a-kind neighborhood of 11 families (parents to 47 foster, adopted and biological kids) and 56 surrogate grandparents impressed President Clinton, who in 1998 bestowed upon Hope Meadows his Excellence in Adoption award. Last June, Oprah Winfrey gave Eheart a Use Your Life award with a $50,000 check. Prizes are nice, but the essence of Hope Meadows' success lies in the bonds formed between the old and the young, a number of whom have suffered severe abuse and neglect. "It's just a wonderful, supportive, old-fashioned community," says Roberts, a single parent who has six girls—five adopted and one foster. "I feel like this place lets me be the kind of parent I want to be."

Hope Meadows, which opened in 1994, is a modest, family-friendly neighborhood of 56 split-level homes, with toy-filled lawns, a playground and a community center—complete with library and computers—where the kids are tutored and fussed over by the retirees. The surrogate grandparents are rewarded in kind. Retired Catholic-school teacher Irene Bohn recalls meeting James Calhoun in 1994 when he was 4. "Where's your husband," he asked. "I don't have one," she replied. "Why?" wondered the bespectacled boy. "Did you kill him?" James went home, packed a suitcase and appeared at Bohn's door. "I came to stay with you," he announced, "because you need a man in the house." Says Bohn, 76: "We have the best of both worlds here. Every day, little miracles happen."

Before accepting families and retirees into Hope Meadows, Eheart put them through their paces. The parents had to be registered with the foster care system and willing to adopt hard-to-place kids. In exchange they receive free housing, health insurance and a $19,000 annual salary for the parent who stays at home. Elderly residents are required to spend at least six hours a week with the kids in exchange for reduced rent—just $325 to $350 a month. "It wasn't until I looked down the street a few years ago and saw all these mailboxes," she says, "that I realized we had created a whole community."

Eheart modeled Hope Meadows, in part, on tiny Basom, N.Y. (pop. 200), where she spent her childhood. She and her two siblings were reared by Marie Krause, now 80, and the late Leon, a dairy farmer. Her grandfather lived on the farm next door and came over for supper. "Everybody knew each other," recalls Eheart, who baled hay and was a 4-H Club member. "Neighbors would drop by at night to sit around the kitchen table to talk." After graduating from high school in 1962, Eheart left the close-knit community for college in Buffalo, where she earned a home economics degree in three years. "I do everything fast," she says. "I married my husband a few months after I met him."

She met Wayland Eheart, 56, a chemical engineer, in 1968. She was then working as a home economist in Chicago, where she taught women living in some of the city's tougher projects—such as Cabrini-Green and Robert Taylor Home—how to shop, cook and care for their children. Her husband's career took the couple from Texas to Germany to Nova Scotia, but the pair returned to the Midwest in 1970 and both earned Ph.D.s (hers was in childhood development) from the University of Wisconsin. In 1975 their daughter Sarah, now 25 and a teacher in San Francisco, was born. In 1979 they adopted Seth, now 23 and a sophomore at the University of Illinois, from a Peruvian orphanage. Today the couple live in a hillside home in Champaign-Urbana, 15 miles from Hope Meadows.

It was 11 years ago, when the nation's foster care system was swelling out of control with the children of crack-addicted and abusive parents, that Eheart began formulating the Hope Meadows idea. She was appalled by the political response to the crisis, typified by then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who proposed a return to orphanages. In 1993 she persuaded Illinois lawmakers to give her nonprofit group, now called Generations of Hope, a $1 million start-up grant. Once she
had the money, she needed the neighborhood. She found it in the former Chanute Air Force training base, which the Pentagon was selling for $215,000. Determined to buy it, Eheart hounded the agency with some 2,000 phone calls, without success. Finally, fed up with the endless red tape, she fired off a fax to the White House. "Clinton came in, promising to end gridlock," she says. "This was gridlock." Her tenacity paid off. "Eight days later, seven people from the Pentagon were here negotiating with us," she says. "We bought the place."

To keep Hope Meadows afloat, Eheart is on a feverish mission to raise $1 million. "I care about one thing these days," she says. "Money!" With all due respect, Eheart is lying. What she cares about are the kids. "We've got to get this place financially stable," she says. "Their lives are at stake." As it should be, these life-and-death matters are far from the minds of Hope Meadows residents. Elmer Davis, for one, has car-pool and playground duties. "Here, we are needed," he says. "Boy, are we needed."

Christina Cheakalos
Kelly Williams in Rantoul

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