Milestone Senior Services helps elders stay in homes — one furnace, handrail, and ramp at a time

“Our last fiscal year we served close to 600 seniors and with our expected projects for 2023, we are on track to exceed this.” – Jodi Vanlerberghe
This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's series on solutions to affordable housing and housing the unhoused. It is made possible by a coalition of funders including the City of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, the ENNA Foundation, and LISC.

Winter of 2021 set in before Gwendalyn Lanier could get the front porch of her Northside home rebuilt.
That’s necessary because she cannot tell how much damage termites have done. So she is looking to have the whole thing rebuilt.
But before she received federal assistance to help pay for that project — a Community Development Block Grant channeled through the City of Kalamazoo to help limited-income senior homeowners with emergency home repairs — she noticed a foul odor coming from her furnace.
In mid-November, a technician from the company that installed the furnace a few years ago, discovered that debris had gotten into her furnace and hot water heater through their connections with her chimney. Just as really cold weather was settling in, he said she had to stop using them all.
When she turned her furnace on last month, she says, “Not only was that debris burning, it was also giving off carbon monoxide and he said that I had to turn off the furnace and the water heater for my safety. So that made what I had an emergency.”
Home Repair Supervisor Brian Penny says Milestone Senior Services' Home Repair Program got it start about 35 years ago, almost immediately involved volunteers, and has grown helps hundreds of people in Kalamazoo and Calhoun counties.Lanier, 69, had already reached out to Milestone Senior Services for help. It had helped her find the grant that was intended for the porch project but was ultimately used for a new furnace/water heater system and chimney repairs.
“Instead of the porch project that they had written up, they stopped that process and addressed the heater,” says Lanier. “So they (private contractors) replaced my furnace with this new furnace they had, where it’s a furnace and hot water heater connected. And they detoured it (the exhaust) to go out the side of my basement, instead of going through my chimney because I had so much damage in my chimney from the cap being off.”
That was a major help for Lanier, who has lived for more than 30 years in her two-story, three-bedroom house on Rose Street, about three blocks north of downtown Kalamazoo. She says she doesn’t know when her chimney cap broke or when it started to let leaves and debris fall inside. It could have been after March when a pinched nerve in her lower back required her to start an extended sick leave from work.
A peer support specialist who helps people recover from addiction at Ministry with Community, Lanier has been able to do some work from home, but her pay has been reduced.
Brian Penny, Home Repair Supervisor for Milestone Senior Services, says help from that nonprofit organization is available to seniors like Lanier and the disabled. Help through the Community Development Block Grant program is available to income-qualified seniors who live in the City of Kalamazoo.
“We’ll qualify some individuals who are living on Social Security and making as little as $800 a month,” says Penny. That is helpful he says when the need for a major home repair arises, “if their furnace goes out or goes bad, and they haven’t budgeted for that, nor could they afford to do that. So they have to face the question: ‘Do I get prescriptions this month? Or do I make repairs?’ Whereas we can go in and help them out with those grant-funded programs and take that off their plate. And then that also does help them keep their independence as well.”
With the help of volunteers, Milestone Senior Services installed 111 wheelchair ramps last year in Kalamazoo and Calhoun counties.Founded in 1963, Milestone Senior Services administers several programs and services to help seniors and the disabled live independently. Those include its Managed Care Services and Home Care Program, which allow seniors and their families to establish personalized plans for nursing care, meal preparation, companionship, and assistance with household chores.
Milestone’s Meal Delivery Services include a paid meal delivery service, a catering service, meals provided at various sites (such as the Ecumenical Senior Center on North Burdick Street and the Washington Square Senior Co-Op Apartments on Collins Street) as well as its well-known Meals on Wheels program. Meals are provided to people age 60 and older through the Older Americans Act and through the Kalamazoo Senior Millage.
Senior Services also offers medical alerts systems, a telephone reassurance program, and a pet support program. All of those, along with the organization’s Home Repair Program support its mission to help seniors thrive at home.
Ask 100 people how they would like to spend their twilight years, and more than 90 percent will probably say they want to remain in their homes as long as possible, Penny says.
With the help of volunteers, Milestone Senior Services installed 111 wheelchair ramps last year in Kalamazoo and Calhoun counties.“All of our programs are designed to keep older adults living independently and safely in their own homes,” he says. “… So we provide resources for them to do that.”
Jodi Vanlerberghe, operations manager for Milestone Senior Services, says that while there is no specific goal for how many individuals or households the Home Repair Program intends to serve this year, she says, “Our goal is to serve as many seniors in our community as possible while providing these seniors the best safety services available.”
Each year the organization exceeds its previous total of seniors served. “Our last fiscal year we served close to 600 seniors and with our expected projects for 2023, we are on track to exceed this.”
Several years ago, their efforts were supported by two grants and used only one or two outside contractors to perform work. Vanlerberghe says, “Now we have nine grants along with several community agency partnerships, where our agencies work together to help seniors in our community get quality safety repairs needed in order for them to remain in their homes longer.”
Penny is also coordinator of the Tuesday Toolmen, a volunteer group of generally retired and skilled people who do free home repair and home modification work to help low-income seniors contacted through Senior Services. They install lots of wall-mounted grab bars to help seniors to avoid slipping. And in Kalamazoo and Calhoun counties they installed 111 wheelchair ramps last year.
They installed a deck on Diann Elenga’s home.
“I had a high step getting in my front door and I fell,” says Elenga, 82, of her home in the Oakwood Neighborhood. “I wasn’t hurt. But it’s an older house and it wasn’t up to code.”
She asked Penny if there was something she could do to get into her house without falling “and he said, ‘Yeah.’”
“One day a big truck pulled into my front yard,” she says. And in short order, they built a deck on the front of the two-bedroom house that has been her home since relocating from Comstock Township about 30 years ago.
“They really care,” Elenga says. “A lot of people might come in and do something. But these people really care.”
The deck was one of several projects Senior Services and professionals that it hires have done for Elenga over the last three years. A neighbor had suggested that she contact Senior Services to help with home repairs. Other projects have included installing grab bars, windows, and a new kitchen floor.
Elenga, who lives on a fixed income, says, “The whole bunch of them are such nice, caring people. They really take care of you. I can’t say enough about them. They’re just fantastic people. They have done so much for me.”
Penny says the Home Repair Program started about 35 years ago with an individual who was set to receive a federally-funded Community Development Block Grant.
“It kind of evolved from there,” Penny says. “It got involved with volunteers helping to carry out those home repairs. So the program has grown. Now we still do have that CDBG funding that we do in the city (of Kalamazoo). But on top of that, we also do the Kalamazoo County Senior Millage Program, which covers (construction of) ramps, home repairs, and chore services. And we also carry out the contracts for the Calhoun County Senior Millage as well.”
The Kalamazoo County Millage funding covers the cost of building access ramps for seniors. It also covers the repair and replacement of furnaces and water heaters. “We do a lot of grab bars and handrails. And then we also do a lot of ramp builds as well,” Penny says. 
Those who receive help don’t have to be indigent to receive services. Help is available for anyone age 60 or older who pays property taxes. But a priority is given to those in need.
“We get requests for people who might (use wheelchairs) and they’re going to take priority for a ramp over somebody who might be in a walker and they’re trying to plan ahead,” Penny says.
Milestone Senior Services has three staff members involved, including technicians who can handle minor home repairs and home modifications such as the installation of handrails and wheelchair ramps, as well as minor weatherization work and minor plumbing work. They are supported by operations managers and accounting staff. The organization is required to contract licensed professionals to do some jobs, however, such as electrical or mechanical work.
“We have a list of subcontractors that we can divert to,” Penny says. It includes plumbers, mechanical subcontractors, and others.
Penny says safety modifications are huge in terms of helping seniors on a fixed or low income to avoid costs and injuries.
“Something as simple as a grab bar – it might cost $30 for a grab bar,” he says. “But we can go in and install it. And it’s going to prevent those slips and those falls that would probably displace a senior to the hospital or nursing home if that were to happen. It’s keeping them safe and at home as well.”
Asked if his program is successfully keeping seniors in their homes, Penny says, “We definitely do.” He says it is working for individuals who cannot easily leave their homes because of physical limitations.
“Quite often we come across people who are homebound —  in a wheelchair  —  and they may have to call an ambulance service just to come pick them up to make it to an appointment,” he says. “And it might cost them an out-of-pocket expense of $150 for those visits. Whereas we can go in and utilize volunteer labor and assemble an accessible ramp for the individual to be able to come in and out of their homes and live more independently that way.”
Elenga says the Senior Service staff really tries to figure out what a person needs and then tries to provide it.
“They make people feel good about themselves,” she says. “A lot of us that use Senior Services are not kids. We’re elderly. They just have so much compassion for people. … If you need something they make sure you have it. And if you don’t have it and they think you should have it, they do it anyway.”
Lanier says she would have had to take out a loan to do the repairs that have been made thus far at her house. “It takes the pressure off a senior worrying about being able to stay in their homes, (and) being able to afford to stay in their homes,” she says.
She spent five days without heat after she had to stop using her old furnace. And she is amazed that a nonprofit organization working with government funding and private contractors in the post-pandemic era could resolve her situation so quickly.
“I called them on a Thursday and by Monday it was in,” she says of her new furnace/watcher heater. … “That’s excellent.”
She is also encouraged that when she leaves her three-bedroom, two-story house to her children and grandchildren someday, it will be in good repair.
“One of my major goals has been to be able to leave this property to my children, my grandchildren actually,” she says. “I’ve spent 30 years making sure that I was able to keep it.”
With the help of programs like those operated by Milestone Senior Services, she says, “Not only will I be able to still live in this house and leave it to the grandkids, but I’ll be able to leave them a property that has been kept up.”
What’s the future value of the Home Repair Program for seniors?
“As long as I’ve been doing this, I don’t see the need getting any less,” Penny says. “I see it getting greater and greater, especially with that Baby Boomer population. Our senior population is growing so fast. And probably the large percentage, 90-plus percent of older individuals, they want to remain in their home as they age. They want to age in place. And so for us going in and putting in these modifications is allowing them to do that. It helps save on taxpayers’ dollars and people being put prematurely in a nursing home.”
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Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.