Jill Hofer

Creating an environment where long-term residents and associates are satisfied is a goal common to all retirement communities. The leaders and innovators in our industry recognize that the shortest route to satisfaction is engagement. One of the best ways to engage any individual is to provide the opportunity to be part of a team working creatively and collaboratively toward a shared vision.

That leaves just one question. What shared vision would be the most meaningful, engaging and have the greatest overall impact? That was the question on the mind of Watermark Retirement Communities’ President and CEO David Barnes when he was inspired to expand our company’s vision to serve both ends of the age spectrum by establishing Watermark for Kids.

Watermark for Kids is a 501c3 nonprofit organization that enables young people across the country to build character, strengthen their leadership skills and express their creativity and spirit. Known for exceptional retirement communities and creating extraordinary places where people thrive, Watermark established the Watermark for Kids program in 2007 to make a positive impact on the cities and towns where our communities are located and assist young people in achieving their dreams.

Unlike other youth-focused organizations, Watermark for Kids proactively finds individual kids and assists them one at a time, with custom awards to fit their specific needs and fulfill their unique dreams. We work with a trusted, non-parental adult such as a principal or guidance counselor to discover how to best help each child thrive. In this way, we make a direct, powerful, life-changing impact.

Because of our individual focus, the dreams we fund are as varied as the kids who receive our awards. Common requests include musical instruments and lessons, laptops, dance classes, sports gear, summer camps, soccer fees; the list goes on and on. More unique awards have included helping pay for a service dog, purchasing adaptive driving devices for a young man born with spina bifida who needed transportation to participate in his sled hockey league. We’ve also funded a racing wheelchair for a young woman in North Carolina who can now actively compete on her high school track team.

Another unusual aspect of Watermark for Kids is that we do not just fund dreams and experiences; we empower kids in a way we hope will truly change their lives. As part of the award requirements, Watermark Kids pay it forward by vowing to help another youth (in their own special way), within a year. This way young individuals get to experience the power that comes with helping others. Watermark Kids have gone on to help others learn to read, improve their skills in music, soccer, art, theater, math, ballet and more. The Watermark Kid who received the adaptive driving devices went on to coach sled hockey and became a Watermark for Kids Coach himself, helping another young man who had grown out of his sled and hockey equipment. Another aspiring young lady wrote a speech about the importance of believing in yourself, which she delivered to her entire Boys and Girls Club, potentially impacting dozens of kids to pursue their dreams.

This would not be possible without the contributions and commitment of our community associates and residents. Throughout the year, Watermark residents and associates work together to plan and execute all types of fundraisers from raffles to bake sales and everything in between. Additionally, Watermark associates have the option to donate via an automatic payroll deduction, and Watermark Retirement Communities hosts two large fundraisers every year. Our fall golf tournament and spring silent auction keep the fund levels healthy, providing a back-stop when a Watermark community has a great nominee but does not have the funds to cover the entire award.

Additionally, each Watermark community has an associate who volunteers as the Watermark for Kids Community Liaison and manages the program at the local level. They lead brainstorming sessions with associates and residents to come up with fundraising ideas, and determine which schools and nonprofit organizations to contact for recommendations and nominees. We have learned that the best outcomes are achieved by clearly conveying the vision, providing plenty of guidance and coaching, and then standing back and letting the creativity flow.

Nominees must be between ages 6 and 22, and meet the requirement of having a big dream with a financial barrier blocking the way. Representatives from Watermark communities reach out to principals and guidance counselors for a recommendation of one driven, talented, deserving individual who fits these requirements. By following this process we ensure all applications are in line with our vision and we don’t have to decline a request or select from multiple competing applications.

This approach not only ensures that the program works in every Watermark community; it makes Watermark for Kids more nimble, flexible, scalable and sustainable. When the organization was founded, Watermark Retirement Communities managed just 11 properties. As Watermark grows – now at 37 communities and counting – Watermark for Kids and our ability to reach great youth across the country expands with us.

David Barnes’ inspiration has resulted in hundreds of kids across the country actively pursuing their passions and thriving, with the added benefit of making Watermark’s communities even more extraordinary places to live and work. Watermark residents are truly committed to making a positive impact and playing a role in improving the lives of these great kids. Residents and associates alike enjoy working together and interacting with the Watermark Kids who visit to share their experience or perform for the community. Watermark for Kids is truly a win-win-win (and possibly even a few more “wins”) proposition. We at Watermark are grateful for the opportunity to serve our residents, associates and these great kids coast to coast. 

C. Jill Hofer is the executive director, Watermark for Kids, and Director of Communication, Watermark Retirement Communities in Arizona.