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Improving life for old and young

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By Ret Boney

John Erickson spends his working hours trying to improve the lives of senior citizens, a career that is now allowing him to focus on his dream of helping children, too.

On September 12, one of those dreams was realized when the NorthBay learning center, a state-of-the-art facility where middle school kids come to learn about the environment and themselves, was opened to school children, thanks to about $38 million from Erickson’s family foundation.

The project was developed in partnership with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, which put up 97 acres of land on the Chesapeake Bay for the campus and is contributing staff and expertise for ongoing programming.

Erickson, who founded and runs Erickson Retirement Communities, a Baltimore-based company providing service-based communal housing for seniors, is eager to pass on the importance of education to young people.

“The one thing that will allow you to become what you want to become is education,” he says.

About 250 middle-schoolers attended NorthBay in its first week, staying overnight for several days with teachers and chaperones, with the school districts paying $50 a child for each day.

Erickson is now lobbying the state of Maryland to allocate money for the per-students costs, which he says would allow NorthBay to give priority to low-income schools.

John Erickson

Job: Founder, chairman and CEO, Erickson Retirement Communities, Baltimore

Education: B.A., philosophy, St. Bernard College; M.A., education, Catholic University

Born: 1943, Chattanooga, Tenn.

Family: Wife, Nancy; four children

Hobbies: Expedition boating

Inspiration: “My mother.  She beat me into getting a college degree.”

NorthBay is booked through January and expects to host 11,000 children this school year, a number that could more than double when summer and weekends visitors are added, Erickson says.

During the day, kids participate in hands-on environmental-science projects, work their way through outdoor adventure courses, play sports and, in the evenings, focus on building character.

“I drill in that you’re the person who can determine what you can be,” says Erickson.  “Drugs, having babies and dropping out of school – that’s what can stop you.  Education can take you as far as you can go.”

Erickson has personally seen the power of education, coming from a “relatively poor” family of 14 children in Tennessee, all of whom received college degrees, with nine going on to get graduate degrees.

For several years, his family was listed in the Guiness Book of World Records for having the most college-educated children in one family, he says, and was eventually dethroned by a Michigan family with 16 kids.

“We didn’t have any money, but we went to school,” Erickson says.  “That’s the avenue, the deciding point in American society.  You can do what you want through education.”

Working in the leisure-housing field in Florida in the 1970s, Erickson says he wanted to provide a senior housing option for moderate-income people during the latter stages of their retirement, when the need for supporting services grows.

So in 1981, he bought an abandoned seminary campus and turned it into Charlestown Retirement Community, a continuing-care community that houses about 2,400 seniors in a setting containing restaurants, banks, beauty salons, primary-care physicians, medical specialists, a rehabilitation center, and a staff that coordinates all medical services.

Today, he operates 12 campus-like communities, serving about 16,000 people, with another three facilities under construction, and about 3,000 residents moving in each year.

Residents pay a monthly housing and services fee, which Erickson says is usually a few hundred dollars less than their current monthly expenses.

And rather than purchasing their housing units, residents pay a “refundable entrance deposit,” averaging about $150,000, that is returned to residents when they leave or given to their estate when they die.

Instead of reporting to stockholders, Erickson says he’s kept the company family-based, setting up the Erickson Foundation about seven years ago with an initial gift of $25 million, and about $50 million more since then.

“I would first off reserve enough capital to keep the engine of the company running,” he says of his strategy for the foundation.  “Then I’d put the remaining capital into a foundation to do things that make a huge difference in society.”

The foundation now has assets of about $70 million, says Erickson, who is quick to note that he funds the foundation based on the work it needs to do, not as a holding place for excess funds.

One of those goals is funding research on quality of life for seniors and improving the quality of aging, he says, including longitudinal studies conducted in partnership with major research universities.

The foundation recently gave $5 million to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, to establish the Erickson School of Aging Studies, which will train leaders to manage senior housing and services, apply relevant research and guide public policy affecting the elderly.

As Baby Boomers age, causing a tectonic shift in demographics, Erickson says, an infusion of new, well-trained leaders will be necessary.

In the next 20 years, he estimates the number of Americans age 65 and over will increase to 65 million from 30 million, and the number of people 75 or older will grow to 33 million from 13 million.

America doesn’t have people to manage services for that population, and the state of Social Security isn’t helping, Erickson says.

“We have some significant structural defects,” he says.  “We cannot afford to deliver the health side of Social Security.  When this group moves up, we do not have the resources to fund that.  Philanthropy will have to fund some research.”

He worries about the plight of low-income Americans, as well.

“They don’t have good health care for poor people in this country,” he says. “We have so many fractured policies that they don’t work well at all. That’s a big place where philanthropy can begin to make an impact.”

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