Monte Vista Grove Homes in Pasadena, CA

"Among the oaks, below the hills, is a place that is kind to old age"

Everyone pitches in at this dynamic community for seniors, including serving each other meals. (Credit: Lindsey Mansis)

This community, of which I am an employee, astounds me every day. It is full of amazing people and a sense of kindness unlike any other I have ever experienced. It is populated by seniors, but brimming with creativity, vitality, humor, humility, and compassion. I am deeply thankful for it, and so blessed and awed to be privy to this unique culture.

Stories About Monte Vista Grove Homes

Monte Vista Grove Homes is so full of nice-ness that it’s almost difficult to detangle specific stories from the general culture of kindness. Much like pulling a single thread from a sweater, you quickly find the stories to be intertwined. However, examples abound, great and small.

MVGH is home to residents across four levels of care: Independent living, assisted living (“The Hearth”), memory care (“The Ranch House”), and skilled nursing (“The Health Center”). Some of the most evident kindnesses take place among and between these levels of care.

A group of independent living residents frequently visit assisted living residents for breakfast. They help fix coffee and oatmeal, and simply foster relationships with the Hearth residents. Although those in assisted living still participate in on-campus activities outside of their four walls, they are a bit more limited than their Independent friends. At this stage of life, seniors are often marginalized by society at large, which quickly compounds the effects of aging and increases incidence of depression. This “breakfast club” goes out of their way to continue to care for the social, emotional, psychological, intellectual and spiritual needs of their assisted living neighbors simply by engaging them. We think this is particularly special because as aging begins to limit the daily functioning that we often take for granted, human nature is to shy away from recognition of its own mortality. But independent living residents faithfully visit the Hearth, where they face what is quite possibly their own future, to nurture friendships with neighbors they genuinely love.

Independent living residents look after each other, too. Individual bungalows speckle the campus map, and have been organized by residents into nine areas. These areas operate like the buddy-system. Within each area, certain residents take on specific functions for their sub-community. They check in on each other and help one another. For instance, no one goes to the hospital alone. If any resident is transported by ambulance, another resident within their area follows them to be present at the hospital. A different resident is designated to inform campus staff, and yet another resident is responsible to look after the house (lock up, secure pets, etc.) of the person being hospitalized. One of our former residents, Marie, was able to stay in her private bungalow several years past her ability to really live independently, due to this communal support system of her neighbors. They checked in on her twice a day, helped her with grocery shopping, doctor visits, and other needs.

In 2015, MVGH launched a Capital Campaign to raise $4.5 million for the construction and furnishing of two new buildings, both of which would serve the resident community. I’l get to the buildings themselves in a moment, but first I want to comment on the overwhelming support of our residents in this endeavor. Residents with means gave generously. Those with less affluence contributed what they were able. All contributions were deeply appreciated not just for their monetary value but for their support of this vision, their trust in the administration’s stewardship of resources, and their enthusiasm for this community. Everyone was so excited and gave according to their financial ability in earnest excitement to participate. One of our residents wrote personal letters to dozens of his friends all over the country, urging them to support MVGH. Residents helped solicit donations from the greater community, and created such an amazing word-of-mouth campaign to raise awareness of this project and its benefits. Our fundraising goal was exceeded before the completion of construction, and both buildings launched in 2018.

CEO Deborah Herbert reflects that during a full year of construction, she received not a single complaint from residents. A few concerns and questions trickled in, but not one solitary comment of frustration or dissatisfaction with the ongoing campus additions. She comments “I am overwhelmed at God’s hand when I reflect back on raising $4.5 million in one year with two residents at the helm, one in his 90’s! Followed by demolishing two buildings and putting up two new buildings in just over a year’s time. Knowing how my colleagues struggle to accomplish much smaller tasks, I am in awe.”

The two resulting buildings are a Memory Care residence and a Wellness Center. The Wellness Center houses a three-row circuit of cardio and strength training equipment, a physical therapy room, a massage room, a large open floorspace for group classes, and an outdoor sports court which can facilitate basketball, pickleball, badminton, volleyball, cornhole, and the like. The Memory Care Residence, dubbed “The Ranch House” is a home for 10 ambulatory seniors struggling with all forms of dementia, and is open to the greater community. The buildings are beautiful, but they are so much more than that. To tour through them, the attention to detail and anticipation of needs is so evident. The Ranch House is clearly built to provide a tranquil, dignified, personal space to those facing the confusing and saddening experience of memory loss. The Wellness Center is carefully designed to be an inviting, communal space that is accessible to a wide range of physical abilities. The buildings manage to express the compassion and support with which MVGH cares for its residents, and also speak to administration’s wise stewardship of resources.

Nestled in Pasadena, California, MVGH has a front-row seat to the world famous Rose Parade, which travels through the heart of our city on New Years Day. Each November, the Rose Queen and Court visit our campus. This is coordinated and spearheaded by two of our residents, Ken and Bev. They decorate with roses grown on campus (which are plentiful and gorgeous), and provide tea and cookies from polished silver teapots. Our most regal chairs are brought to the stage in the Marwick Place assembly room (the largest meeting-space on campus), and each princess is escorted to her seat by one of our gentlemen residents. Each escort wears a red tie and is meticulously practiced in the proper walking pace, the exact spot to stop and turn, and the direction to face. Each escort then announces the princess on his arm. Once seated on stage, a resident addresses the court, humorously describing old age, speaking about the Monte Vista Grove Homes community, and thanking them for their visit. Next comes the crowd favorite: the MVGH men’s Chorus, donning red ties, singing a resident-penned song about the Rose Parade and Court. The evening culminates with CEO Deborah Herbert giving each girl a personal blessing based on research about their name.

Residents also pray for staff by name, pray for the community, and pray for each other. They are deeply invested in this community, and their pastoral covering provides a foundation unlike any other. Kindness abounds in the daily culture on Monte Vista Grove Homes’ campus, fueled by a communal sense of gratitude for this astounding ecosystem. Office Manager Nancy Lain remembers a van driver who, after observing the community in his first few days of employment, remarked “This place is like Disneyland.” Nancy chuckles as she repeats the story to me, and aptly adds “Maybe Disneyland, maybe a foretaste of heaven.” You decide.

It’s hard to conceive of a communal kindness inhabiting a physical space until you experience it. It’s hard to understand the selfless nature of a symbiotic community until you see it. It’s hard to imagine that the embodiment of a childlike spirit is found in a place populated by nearly 200 residents over the age of 65, until you step foot on Monte Vista Grove Homes campus. That’s right; I’m describing a continuing care retirement community.

To enter Monte Vista Grove Homes is to exit your expectations. It is to re-think the ageism that infiltrates our daily lives. To understand the unique culture of this place, it is necessary to examine its history, campus, and the people who inhabit it.

From its inception 94 years ago, MVGH has been set apart by conviction to provide for those who have spent their lives in service. This community was conceived when James Marwick (founder of the accounting firm, KPMG), chairman of the Synod of California’s committee on “Ministerial Relief and Sustentation,” found himself shocked and saddened by the living situations of retired Presbyterian ministers and their widows. Ministry is not known to be a particularly lucrative career choice, and Social Security and pensions did not exist. In 1923, Marwick urged the Synod (the governing body of the Presbyterian denomination) to “take all necessary steps to secure property suitable for the purpose of a retirement home.” The following year, he reported that he had found a 13.5 acre orange grove in Pasadena, California.

Marwick worked tirelessly to raise funds to support this vision, and was well aided by Dr. Robert Freeman, pastor of the Pasadena Presbyterian Church, and influential church member David Gamble of Proctor and Gamble. The MVGH founding committee also secured the help of famed architect Myron Hunt, known for his work on the Pasadena Rose Bowl as well as local colleges and theaters. Hunt enabled Marwick’s vision of individual bungalow style homes, so that residents could live independent, private lives rather than share a single dormitory building.

When the first residents moved in, they were asked to contribute $5.00 a week, but they contributed as much as they were able, above the requested fee, of their own volition. This began the spirit of philanthropy, generosity, and communalism that nurtures Monte Vista Grove Homes to this day. Resident contributions make up a sizeable portion of the operating budget.

Today, Monte Vista looks much different than it did in those first few years, but its incredible history is honored throughout daily life, and woven into its modern vision and framework. And the philosophy of the founders remains, “From those who are physically fit, we shall hope to have such assistance in the upkeep of gardens and grounds as they can give without overtiring themselves or drawing unduly on their time. Such work will be conducive to good health. Our object is to establish a place of quiet rest and refreshment, not necessarily of indolence.” (Synod, 1925)

The humble orange grove has become a garden in full bloom in the idyllic southern California climate. As you enter the Louise Gamble Garden, you’ll find yourself greeted by the scent of jasmine and as much color as your eyes can take in. The campus abounds in life and beauty. Turtles and Koi fish soak up year-round sunshine in the Louise Gamble Garden, butterflies frequent the many species of pollinators in the mediation garden, and even the succulents annually present such delicate, vibrant blooms that you could almost mistake the cacti as expressing thankfulness for the chance to participate in the captivating majesty of these grounds. Entering the campus through the central commons building, you’ll pass campus dining and the library. Progressing over a bridge where Koi swim under foot, you’ll follow flora-lined paths throughout the acreage, passing original bungalows, a Spanish-style administration building, the “Marwick Place” assembly building, as well as picnic tables, fountains, and a swimming pool. You’ll also pass The Hearth, the Health Center, the Ranch House, and the Wellness Center. These additions are the result of Monte Vista’s commitment to proactively meet changing needs.

A small part of the beautiful campus. (Credit: Lindsey Mansis)

As lifespans and needs have increased over time, Monte Vista added the Health Center in 1964, the Hearth in 1994, and the Ranch House just this year. The Hearth is a 16-room assisted living unit, offering assistance with activities of daily living while promoting independence. The Health Center is a 40-bed skilled nursing facility, offering 24-hour nursing care in a gentle, personal environment. The Health Center boasts a five-star rating, which comes as a surprise to no one who has witnessed the conviction with which Monte Vista Grove Homes dedicates itself to quality of care on every level. The Ranch House is a memory-care residence, built to serve ambulatory seniors struggling with memory loss in a tranquil, home-like environment. The 10-bedroom unit is an elegant communal living space, specifically designed to focus on what an individual is able to do, rather than on abilities lost.

While Independent Living is reserved for Presbyterian Church retirees, the Ranch House, Hearth, and Health Center are open to the community at large. Taking an ever-holistic approach to care, however, MVGH also recognized that research consistently finds physical exercise to reduce the incidence of dementia and circumvent or diminish a host of other degenerative aspects of aging. Thus came The Wellness Center. This gorgeous, state-of-the-art building flooded with natural light houses two rows of cardio options and a strength training circuit, a massage room, a physical therapy room, and a large floorspace where yoga, Zumba, Tai-Chi, and other group exercise classes meet. Just off the east end of building is a flexible sports court for a basketball or pickle ball match, because if you think seniors don’t do Zumba or shoot hoops, you’re wrong. In fact, MVGH is currently in the middle of a 12-week campus-wide competition where staff and residents alike can win prizes for working out. Neck-and-neck for first place are a 95 year old and a 99 year old, both of whom often visit the Wellness Center several times a day.

By now, maybe you can envision this garden-like, sun-soaked campus. Maybe you can visualize something like a bright cheery scene in a watercolor painting. But even the most beautiful static image can’t do this place justice. Monte Vista is brought alive, as all places are, by the people who inhabit it. The collection of wisdom, life experience, spirituality, generativity, and vitality in our residents is nearly matchless. Globe trotters, authors, teachers, missionaries, artists, athletes, and scholars from all over the world populate our campus. But when you meet these intellectual giants, you won’t know that you’re shaking the hand of someone who has dined with presidents, helped to topple the Berlin wall, or marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Instead, you’ll be paused by their immediately evident kindness, generosity, and humility.

Although our independent living residents share a common background in ministry, their lives, experiences, and socioeconomic levels vary greatly. Yet all are treated with respect and compassion; they carry each other’s burdens and celebrate each other’s joys. Those with means give generously to the organization, helping to keep expenses low for those who have less to live on.

A bulletin board in the commons building lists all manner of odd jobs alongside names of residents who are willing to help. Carol will assist you with typing. Bob will drive you to the doctor. Jane will mend your clothing. Jim will read aloud to those who have trouble with small text. Residents are also quick to help stuff envelopes, sort mail, answer phones, arrange floral centerpieces, or otherwise participate in the daily needs of this community. Moreover, they do so cheerfully; never supposing themselves to be above helping out, never acting put-upon. The strong sense of community here is all the more fostered by many resident-formed life-enriching programs. Self-contained resident committees run writing and painting classes, prayer groups, and comprise the Auxiliary which runs an on-campus store that raises funds to enhance the lives of those in the assisted living and skilled nursing levels of care. Residents also organize weekly convocations. Thanks to them, MVGH hosts choirs, musicians, and guest speakers from outside our campus, and enjoys plays, historical reenactments, and readings performed by residents, often provided by the writing class, members of which have self-published three books.

Our own residents are also responsible for piecing together much of Monte Vista Grove’s history from archives of the Synod’s meeting minutes and other historical documents and accounts. One committee is a bit unique among our residents’ pursuits: the staff appreciation committee, which throws an annual party to honor the staff, and distributes gifts at Christmas time funded by resident contributions. This is just one illustration of the mutual respect and appreciation between staff and residents.

Residents are integral to the administrative process. They offer counsel and wisdom to senior staff, open committee meetings in prayer and devotionals, and regularly encourage the staff with heartfelt words, big smiles, and lots of hugs. Some of our residents also meet together to pray for each employee by name. This speaks volumes about the servant-hearts that comprise this community, and demonstrates the true partnership between residents and staff. There is no evidence of ageism, no hint of snickering at the younger or the older. Both parties celebrate the skills their counterparts contribute.

When the entire campus participates in periodic disaster drills, staff is alongside to assist as needed but residents are encouraged to run through the drill steps without aid as much as possible. As I shadow Nancy, the designated disaster point-person for her quadrant of bungalows, she explains this is because disaster could strike at any time, possibly when administrative staff would be off-site; but then comments as an aside that in the event of an emergency, she knows “the staff would rush here in the middle of the night, anyway.”

Resident Dean Thompson remarks, “Our administration and staff are extraordinarily confident, competent and humble. There is a deep abiding pastoral concern for the residents. I have not met anyone who works here who does not perceive their work as a spiritual calling.”

Likewise, CEO Deborah Herbert tells me that when a resident enters her office, they take priority over everything else on her agenda. Although MVGH is actively engaged in the surrounding community and three of our care levels are open to the public, an outdated slogan on some older marketing material reads “The Best Kept Secret in the San Gabriel Valley.”

This tagline now elicits a good-natured groan whenever it resurfaces. But having depicted Monte Vista’s inspiring history, captivating campus, and absolutely incredible community, I still find myself at a loss for words to fully explain the way this ecosystem thrives. Some element of it cannot be captured in language, and I must confess that there is some truth to our old slogan. Despite my best efforts, the secret of this flourishing community cannot be fully grasped until it is experienced.

There is a peace and an abundance that rest over the campus, and a contagious generativity and joy found among those who make their home here. It’s an extraordinary experience to walk these grounds, to meet these incredible people, and to find yourself arrested by a simple sense of wonder.