Amy St. Peter

During the Great Recession a few years ago, the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) came to a stark conclusion: If the region were to improve the quality of life for residents in the greater Phoenix area, we had to make some hard choices.

Even when the economy in Arizona turned around, we believed there would be no great windfall of public funding. MAG had to devise new strategies to grow, based on the premise that we’d all have to find ways to make the fiscal pie bigger, not just divvy it up into smaller and smaller slices. At the same time, we knew how important is was to continue providing opportunities for people to be involved and enriched by their communities–whatever their stage in life.

Along the way, we discovered an interesting demographic challenge. Our region today includes some cities with the highest concentration of older adults nationwide, as well as other municipalities with the lowest concentrations of older adults. Nowhere else in the country is there such a broad range of ages.

On top of that, these seniors were not like previous generations. In a survey of residents 55 years and older we found that almost three-quarters of them did not go to senior centers; theycenters; they did not want to be segregated from the broader community. Boomers simply presented a different dynamic.

This was unchartered territory. We soon realized there could be no one solution. Instead, the answer was to build a network that would help 60-plus people connect with people of all ages in their communities. And so, the Greater Phoenix Age-Friendly Network was born.

It took approximately 18 months to launch the network, with support from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, an innovative local leader. The network is also part of a national initiative, Community AGEnda, funded by the Pfizer Foundation and administered by Grantmakers in Aging. To shape and promote the project, we established a broad partnership of leaders from local governments, non-profit agencies, places of worship and residents. Our goal: help communities identify their own priorities in supporting and leveraging the talents of older residents, then offer the technical assistance they needed to do so.

So far, we’ve implemented pilot programs in three communities and created a website,, which supports the network with a wide variety of resources and information, including online training through a monthly webinar series, “Feed Your Mind,”on the first Friday of each month. There are five more pilot sites coming online in 2015.

Each pilot program goes through a three-step development process: First, the community does an inventory of its existing assets–what’s working right and how to leverage those assets. Second, we help design a community engagement process, including focus groups. And third, the leadership team creates a business plan to carry out the strategy. Each community follows the same process, but they all come away with different outcomes, tailored to their own needs. You have to listen intently to what each community wants.

In the central Phoenix, for example, the main focus was on establishing a Central Village “time banks”through a partnership between the City of Phoenix and All Saints Episcopal Church and Day School. Central Village members give their time to each other, with each donated hour earning an hour in return. Every hour is valued the same, no matter the person’s age or expertise–creating an equalizing measure for a population with wide-ranging incomes.

In the East Valley, we supported Tempe Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a nonprofit organization, to evolve into a full scale village with a broad range of services. By coordinating a network of compassionate neighbors and volunteers, the group offers assistance with basic home and yard maintenance, transportation, companionship and other needs.

Ultimately, community engagement has been the cornerstone of age-friendly community-building. Our leadership team had to learn and listen–and avoid placing our preconceptions on a community. We also learned the importance of bringing elected officials to the table, because they could support us and open doors we couldn’t.

It has been said that if the gift of the 20th century has been increased human longevity, then the challenge of this century will be figuring out what to do with that extra time–and making the most of it. When I consider the possibilities, all I have to do is listen to the stories of older folks and younger ones in Greater Phoenix–like Juanita Copeland, a retired training professional, and Jessica Ayala, an 11th grade student at Maya High School. Copeland served as a coach in a program called Ambassadors of Compassion, and Jessica was one of a group of students she coached, helping her deal with feelings, overcome obstacles and prepare for the world of work.

“I have been so thankful for all the coaches have done, not only to teach me my potential, but give me opportunities to live it out,”Jessica told us. “They have been Maya Strong, and so am I.”

Amy St. Peter is the Human Services and Special Projects Manager of the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG). She serves as coordinator of MAG’s Greater Phoenix Age-Friendly Network, a diverse partnership of organizations, including three key supporters: the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust; the Community AGEnda (a partnership between Grantmakers in Aging and the Pfizer Foundation), and the City Leaders Institute on Aging in place (a collaboration between Partners for Livable Communities and the Metlife Foundation). Contact: Information is also available at

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