Journal North Bay GIVES award: Mary Stompe advocates for seniors in Sonoma County

North Bay GIVES Awards

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Mary Stompe had advocated for seniors on the Petaluma City Council and in the nonprofit world, but she became ever more sensitive to the issue with her experiences in her own family.

“My father passed away unexpectedly, and my mother went from having a middle class life to losing his retirement benefits and her health insurance,” the North Bay GIVES award winner remembers. “Mom had only minimal Social Security after spending most of her time as a homemaker raising three children. It was a financial struggle that I saw first-hand. I was able to help her, and I felt I could improve the quality of life for other folks who were on a limited income and had limited resources.”

In serving as executive director of PEP Housing since 2004, Stompe is determined to support older citizens to gracefully age in place.

The organization manages 19 communities with over 700 residents, age 62 and over. Several more communities are in development, including one in Petaluma that targets senior veterans.

“My philosophy is to provide a very functional, well-made building, and to bring in as many things as we can to enhance residents’ dignity and quality of life,” she says. “We give people homes, not just an apartment to live in. Each property has its own personality, and the residents all look out for one another so there is a real sense of community. Also, the people who work here love working with seniors. I think that’s what makes us stand out. It’s the passion for what we do.”

“The people who work here love working with seniors. I think that’s what makes us stand out. It’s the passion for what we do.“ Mary Stompe, executive director, PEP Housing

Stempe has worked for Leading Age, California, an association of 6,000 not-for-profit organizations dedicated to “making America a better place to grow old.” She was on their board for ten years serving as vice-president, treasurer, secretary, as well as being on the housing and public policy cabinets and the political action committee.

“I spent a lot of time at the state Capitol advocating for senior rights.”

She has volunteered with the Red Cross since 2003. Among other things, Stempe worked as a Disaster Action Team Supervisor, most recently at the command center during the 2021 summer fires around Sacramento. Stompe also volunteers with CART (Community Animal Response Team), a group that cares for animals that have been through fires or other emergencies and provides training and education in animal preparedness for, response to, and recovery from, disasters.

Rather than sapping her energy, volunteering in her non-job hours is energizing.

“You get revitalized from doing the things you love,” Stompe says. “I love animals and I really enjoy helping people and other animals,” she laughs. “I spent the day yesterday taking my goat, Clyde, to UC Davis. He has a tumor close to his carotid artery and it would require dangerous surgery. You should have seen the three of us trying to cajole, well, force, a goat into a horse trailer!”

After spending 13 years in Petaluma, Stompe and her husband, Brad, now live in Novato on half an acre, “with dogs, chickens, ducks and assorted wild creatures.”

The president of PEP’s board of directors, Sean Pryden, says the organization has tripled its size in the 18 years of Stompe’s tenure.

“ Mary is an incredible leader with a tenacious spirit. She gives her heart and soul to our mission, and we would not be what we are today without her.”

For this busy woman, a major source of inspiration is the stories of residents themselves, their challenges and their triumphs. Because they don’t give up easily, Stompe and her staff at PEP don’t either, persisting even in situations where there might be resistance from neighbors to a new senior housing project.

“You always have a few outliers who don’t like things to change,” Stompe observes, “but we have been successful in working with neighborhoods where our communities are going to be built, meeting with people early in the process so they feel they are able to voice their concerns.”

She has been particularly touched by the story of a gentleman who lived at the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa – the one devastated by the October 2017 Tubbs Fire.

“He woke up to the flames all around. He had to rush out in his underwear and get on a bus that finally made it over to the Finley Center. One of the people working at the fire shelter saw him, went over and took off his own shoes, gave his socks to this man and then put his shoes back on.” Stompe continues, obviously emotionally affected. “That 83-year-old who was sitting there in the shelter wearing only his underwear and socks that a person had taken off his own feet and given to him, had the will to go on. He pushed through, found his way to us and we gave him housing. It was such a touching story for me to know that he came from having nothing to having a warm bed and a place to call home.”

Even on her first day at PEP, Stompe recalls meeting a woman who had been living in a campground with her dog. She was able to move into an apartment and is still there 17 years later.

“Because of her, we put in a dog run and now all of our newer properties have dog runs. Anything we think our residents would like, I’m up for trying.”

In fact, Stompe enjoys her chicken coop at home, so she put one in at the Richard S. Lieb Senior Apartments on Douglas Street in Petaluma.

“The residents are so entertained watching the antics of these chickens. The birds sometimes sit in their laps. My reward is just to see them smile, little things like that. To be able to improve the quality of life to as many of people as possible. That’s what gets me to work every day. That’s all I need.”

PEP Housing started 43 years ago when a group of clergy and community leaders sat down over coffee to figure out how they could help local seniors who were living in appalling conditions, like storage units, garages or tents, without heat or running water. (The original name, Petaluma Ecumenical Properties, became PEP in later years.)

Issues that complicate PEP Housing’s mission at present are a nursing shortage, supply chain problems, ever-increasing materials costs, and the pandemic, although Stompe says she is not aware of any deaths and just a few cases among residents. “They have been very diligent in following COVID protocols,” she notes. “We did a program with Leading Age providing $100 gift cards to get vaccinated or a booster, and we ran out of those in one week!”

The business of providing housing for low-income seniors has funding challenges too, since housing for families and for the homeless often take precedence in competition for grants and other kinds of support. Because of this, Stompe is always looking to innovate.

In two of the PEP locations under construction, one in Petauma and one in Vacaville, there will be a Wellness Center. It will be set up so that licensed professionals can come to see the residents, some of whom are too frail to get to a doctor’s office. “It’s brand new for us so we are hoping to partner with a health care organization where we provide the space for them and they provide the services.”

Currently there is a six-year waiting list for PEP Housing, and the best chance of getting a spot is to get on the wait list of a new property. In 2022, 140 units will come online: new communities in Vacaville and Petaluma and a rehabbed facility in Santa Rosa.

North Bay GIVES Awards

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