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Chester County Press

Finding a home in Kennett Square

11/09/2018 10:14AM ● By J. Chambless

Friends Home, shown in a hand-colored postcard, circa 1915.

By Natalie Smith
Staff Writer

For more than a century, a place in Southern Chester County has been opening its doors to senior members of the community, offering them care, companionship and independence.

Walking through the main building of Friends Home in Kennett, it’s easy to understand why this has been a successful endeavor for so long. It’s a comfortable, welcoming environment, where everyone seems to know everyone. Whether it’s a resident in a chair greeting all who walk by, or a staffer discussing with another the best way to care for a plant, it gives the aura of home.

Located in the Historic District of Kennett Square on West State Street, Friends Home (operated by the Society of Friends, or Quakers), marked its 120th anniversary in October. A celebration week included activities for residents and staff and their families, as well as the public.

Christine McDonald, executive director of Friends Home at Kennett, has overseen some improvements during her tenure, including the porch and loading dock project. (Photo by Natalie Smith)

 “Everyone is very dedicated to the mission of providing quality, affordable care to seniors,” McDonald said. “Everybody – the board [of directors], the staff -- is here for the right reasons.” Executive director Christine McDonald oversees the senior living facility, whose permanent residents range from those who live in independent apartments to others who need skilled nursing care. She said the non-profit organization accepts people from all religious denominations and is very clear in its objective.

And that mission is a mainstay of the Quakers. As Pennsylvania was established by William Penn in the 1600s to be a haven for his fellow Friends, their tradition of taking care of those in need while also recognizing their dignity later led to the establishment of senior citizen boarding homes. According to a history by Friends Home at Kennett, about a dozen such homes were situated in the Philadelphia area in the 1800s.

In 1898, the Western Quarterly Meeting – the official name of the Kennett Friends Meeting but which also includes other groups in the area – saw that some elderly in their vicinity could use some help. It rented the Willian Chalfant property at 219 W. Linden Street and created the Friends Boarding Home of Western Quarterly Meeting.

The Friends Home history states that in 1843, Quaker Samuel Martin built what later became its main building, housing the office, health center and parlor. It was first used as a school for girls, called the Kennett Female Seminary, which had 40 pupils. It was later sold to Dr. Elisha Gatchell, who changed its name to the Eaton Academy. After several years, the school’s reputation grew, and it came under the direction of Evan T. Swayne.

According to the Friends history, after the school closed in 1877, it was used as a residence until the start of the 20th century, when the Western Quarterly Meeting purchased it for $7,500. The home was modernized with gas lighting and central heat, and became the Friends Home. Telephones were installed in 1907, electric lights in 1912, and an elevator in 1936, with a new one added in 1988.

McDonald said after more regulations came into effect, what had initially been a boarding home became licensed as a personal care home. As the community’s needs increased, so did the additions to Friends Home. The two buildings which contain the independent living apartments, Jackson and Walton, were purchased and renovated in 1969 and 1983, respectively. Linden Hall, the skilled nursing unit, was built in 1980. For future use, the Alma Newlin house across Maiden Lane was purchased in 1995.

The Friends Home is currently at 50 rooms, with 20 in Linden Hall. Even though building at another site had been considered, the decision has been made to remain at the existing location. “To keep to the mission,” McDonald said. “If they had relocated they would have had an increase in room rates.”

There are many larger senior communities in Chester County, some large enough that they are pretty much self-sufficient. But those often require a large upfront pay-in and can also lack a neighborhood feel, McDonald said.

“Another thing is a lot of people want that walkability,” she said, pointing out the facility’s prime location on State Street in Kennett Square. “They don't want to necessarily be isolated. We’re never going to have a pool, but we have memberships to the YMCA. We’re not going to have a huge library – we have a little library – but we go to the [Kennett] Library twice a month up the street.”

A food court/market, bank and barber shop are all within walking distance, and some Friends Home residents take advantage of that. “We utilize the town, and as long as it's deemed safe, our residents are free to go. One woman walks to church every Sunday,” McDonald said.

Residents also want to contribute to the community. “We have a lot of people who want to help out, so we try to do volunteer things. They want to be part of something larger than themselves,” McDonald said.

Friends Home is also making improvements and additions. There has been work on a four-season porch at Linden Hall, where there have also been updates and refurbishing. A bus was purchased to take residents on trips, and they’ve increased staff in the Community Life department, offering activities daily. “We have a lot of people here interested in gardening, so we’re looking to get a greenhouse,” she said.

McDonald said because of the Home’s longevity in the community, it’s offered many area residents peace of mind.

“There’s never been a concern that you would be cared for here at Friends Home,” she said, “and that’s what we want. A lot of people have lived [in the Kennett area] their whole lives and they said they always knew when the time came, they were going to move here. Or sometimes the children live in Kennett, and they say, ‘when Mom or Dad need help, I want to bring them back here.'

“It’s always had a reputation for excellent care. It’s not the fanciest, but the care and caring is there. A lot of staff are local Kennett people. Several of us walk to work. Several people have family members here. Some of the names have, for 50, 60, 70 years, been associated with the Friends Home.

“You know, when I first started, somebody who was in marketing at a [larger] place told me, ‘You’ve got to change the name,' because nobody calls them homes anymore.

“But I don’t think it’s a bad word,” McDonald said. “Because people come and go, their families come and go. People stop by and say 'Hi.' It’s very comfortable. This is their home.”

Contact Natalie Smith at [email protected]