Pilgrim Place festival raises funds for Claremont senior community involved in religious and community service

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Beginning Friday,  a senior community in Claremont will hold its 65th annual Pilgrim Place Festival .  The two-day event will feature face painting, a Santa stage, arts and crafts, community theater, and a campus-wide yard sale. Some residents dress up in traditional pilgrim clothes. 

It's all to benefit community-members who might otherwise be unable to afford to live  in this unique community of seniors. Pilgrim Place was set up to be a senior community for those who devoted a portion of their life and careers to charitable organizations and community service. 

A community of community leaders

One early morning last week, residents were moving and organizing boxes filled with donated trinkets, tending flowers and foliage planted by residents and packing resident-made goods.

Lenore Brashler, 71, was finishing up in a storage room where she was rearranging 165 dozen cookies, 1,807 jars of jam, 100 loaves of various breads, 65 coffee cakes and more that were overflowing shelves and five separate freezers to make room for more.

"It's a madhouse, I've been told," said Brashler of the food booth at the festival. Brashler became a Pilgrim Place resident in August. "We sell out every year."

The festival, the community's biggest event of the year, is like a really big garage sale.

"Everybody's involved; I mean, everybody who isn't in bed is involved in the festival," said Elenore Towell, 96, a Pilgrim Place resident since 1983.

Even without the festival around the corner, the campus remains busy year-round. Its more than 300 residents lead active lifestyles well into their 90s, learning new crafts such as weaving or painting, others are involved in social justice issues or local politics.

"It's a community that cares deeply about making the world a better place, beyond the walls here (at Pilgrim Place)," said Sue Lykens, 71, who will be moving into Pilgrim Place this year. "People who live here are dedicated and committed to doing work that does that."

When it opened in 1915, Pilgrim Place was set up to support missionaries on furlough who didn't have a pension or enough savings to support themselves.

Over the years, it evolved into the retirement community it is today —  expanding its mission to include individuals who served in religious or charitable organizations and allowing them to continue their life of service after retirement.  The community remains predominantly Christian, though it has some members from other religious backgrounds.

Each resident has had to apply and fulfill the community's requirements of having worked for at least a decade as an employee of a religious or charitable nonprofit organization.

"I don't think there are any other retirement homes like Pilgrim Place," said Towell. "We are a community. Because we move to assisted care, nothing has changed. We are still part of the community. Many of these people [living at Pilgrim Place] were the community leaders, and they fell on [ill] health."

A safety net built on coffee cake sales and theater tickets

For 65 years, the annual festival has supported Pilgrim Place residents who are running out of savings or have a medical emergency that creates a financial burden. The festival brings in an average $200,000 each year, which supplements a general fund that acts as a kind of safety net for its residents. 

"It started not so much as a fundraiser, bust as more of a connection (to the wider community). So, that part is still part of our purpose," says Bob Wallace, chair of the festival.

The festival evolved toward another goal: raising money so that residents, who are primarily coming at the end of their lives, never have to leave. 

"Many of our residents chose to work in careers where they wouldn't command high salaries," said Joyce Yarborough, vice president of advancement at Pilgrim Place. "Many of them haven't been able to save for retirement. So, many of them are in a more precarious financial position."

The festival is set to take place Friday and Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on both days. Pilgrim Place is located in Claremont on 625 Mayflower Road. More info

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