A long-time member of Brandywine Valley Active Aging (BVAA) grew up in a family where the Tuskegee Syphilis Study had an immediate impact. That infamous study in Tuskeegee, Alabama, that recruited hundreds of rural Black men in 1932 who were, without their permission or knowledge, injected with syphillis and denied treatment, has resulted in generations of mistrust of the medical system.

The BVAA member was certain they wanted to be vaccinated against COVID but lacked the confidence to follow through, given their family history under the shadow of Tuskeegee.

After several conversations, a BVAA team member was able to encourage the individual to be vaccinated. The team member would go on to accompany the individual through each step of the process: scheduling the appointment, picking them up for their appointment, completing their paperwork, staying by their side during the vaccine administration (even holding their hand), and returning the individual safely home.

After finally receiving their vaccine, this individual now feels safe to return to programming at Brandywine Valley Active Aging—something they had not done since March 2020!

“The paid and volunteer staff at BVAA spend a lot of time reflecting on unconscious bias—especially to be sure that we can put practice to words when we say, ‘meet them where they are,'" said BVAA Executive Director Bill Pierce. 

Our keen ability to understand the unique needs of older adults, particularly those from marginalized groups, has allowed us to make significant progress and breakthroughs with driving positive outcomes in the areas of food security, economic seecurity, and social connectedness."

What is the history of the Brandywine Valley Active Aging?

Brandywine Valley Active Aging (BVAA) was formed in 2021, bringing two senior centers in Chester County, Pennsylvania, under one umbrella. These two centers, located in Coatesville and Downingtown, had operated independently as “Meals Together” program providers established in 1977.

BVAA is a nonprofit senior center offering case management, programs for arts and entertainment, and a variety of physical activity programs including salsa and line dancing. Their programs and services are made possible through the support of their committed volunteers and staff, including a therapy dog, Westin. They offer lunch each weekday at both of their locations and have drive-through pickup and delivery of meals available. BVAA also operates a food pantry providing produce for older adults in a county where nearly 8% of the population has reported going to bed hungry.

Over more than four decades, these centers have built trust with members of their communities for whom trust has been historically broken. BVAA was selected as one of the 150 senior centers contracted under NCOA’s COVID-19 and Influenza Vaccine Uptake Initiative to provide a minimum of 100 vaccinations over the 2023-2024 vaccination season. Because of these long-standing relationships BVAA’s two centers have established, they were able to more than triple their goal number of vaccinations.

Who visits Brandywine Valley Active Aging?

Visitors to BVAA’s two locations represent a wide variety of demographics, with Coatesville being Chester County’s only city. The remainder of the county, including Downingtown, is rural. A diverse group of older adults visit the centers, with nearly half being Black, over half living alone, and over 20% living in poverty.

The Coatesville Campus is an 8,000 square foot facility conveniently located within two blocks walking distance of three low-income senior housing facilities. This location has two dedicated activity rooms, a dining hall that seats 75, a billiards room, and a large commercial kitchen where meals are prepared for both sites.

The Downingtown Campus is currently a 7,000 square foot leased space in a former elementary school, converted to a church, in the heart of the Borough of Downingtown. It has two dedicated classrooms and a dining room that seats 100. 

What activities took place at BVAA as part of the Vaccine Uptake Intiative?

BVAA’s two locations are approximately seven miles apart, conveniently located along historic Route 30. Serving more than 2,000 individuals each year, and with daily attendance averaging 300 per day, BVAA has a large and captive audience.

During the vaccine initiative, BVAA worked collaboratively with a local, trusted pharmacy to host four on-campus COVID and flu vaccine clinics and one on-site clinic at the pharmacy. BVAA is fortunate to have two vehicles, allowing them to provide transportation assistance when transportation was not accessible via the senior shared ride program.

Building trust leads to vaccination success

Like most senior community centers, Brandywine Valley Active Aging works strategically to build a relationship of trust within their communities, the individuals they serve, as well as their private and public partners. This foundation of trust was critical during their pandemic response and has remained critical to the success of their continued education and vaccination promotions.

At the initial vaccine rollout, BVAA was awarded a grant from a local private foundation to drive a public education and advocacy campaign to encourage older adults, especially minority populations, about vaccine safety and effectiveness. BVAA also worked in partnership with the Chester County Health Department as a public vaccination station as part of their pandemic response.

Brandywine Valley Active Aging Vaccine Hero Ruth Wilson
Part of the BVAA public education and advocacy campaign to inform older adults about vaccine safety and effectiveness

While the demand for vaccination clinics has declined over the years (due to the ease at which obtaining vaccinations from doctors, pharmacies, and clinics has improved), many older adults still rely on senior community centers as vaccination sites. Each year, BVAA works with trusted pharmacies to ensure access to vaccinations including COVID, influenza, and shingles.

What does modernization mean to Brandywine Valley Active Aging?

Modernizing is not limited to physical spaces but includes learning how to best address the needs and wants of future older adults. Gone are the days of catered-in food for the congregate meal program—their in-house culinary team prepares fresh meals each day for their guests. They have also moved from a 12 p.m. mealtime to their dining room being open from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. and their drive-through meal program being available from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Additionally, they are exploring weekend hours.

Modernizing also includes continued work in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) programming, ensuring that everyone has equal access to opportunities for positive and healthy aging.

"As part of our practice, we utilize a process, Appreciative Inquiry, to evaluate our success in one area of our work, and how we might apply that success in areas of our work that are not performing as efficiently or effectively," Pierce said. "These honest conversations, while not always easy to have or hear, allow us to continually improve the activities, programs, and services we offer.”

What's next for Brandywine Valley Active Aging?

BVAA is actively pursuing a permanent home for the Downingtown Campus. The new campus will boast 16,000 square feet of space and will serve as the new corporate headquarters. Additionally, the main commercial kitchen will move to the new facility. They are currently preparing for a $5 million capital campaign to purchase and renovate this space as well as to make minor renovations to the Coatesville Campus and building a foundation of savings for the future.

In addition, BVAA is expanding its work in addressing the critical needs of Food and Economic Security, will be publishing the results of our Community Needs Assessment for LGBTQ+ older adults, and is in the early planning stages for launching a Dementia Friendly Downtown program.

Still not a member of the National Institute for Senior Centers? Join today, membership is free. 

If your center has completed a recent study or assessment or is trying out some new programming approaches, we’d love to hear about it. And if you haven't already, we'd encourage you to join the National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC). Free to all senior centers (and their personnel), NISC supports senior centers with best practices and innovations in programming, as well as networking and training opportunities. Ask for help, leverage NISC resources, or share your successes like Brandywine Valley Active Aging. Find out how you can become a NISC Affiliate today. 

Photos courtesy Brandywine Valley Active Aging