Eric Blegen started work at The Mustard Seed Project Nov. 1. Photo: Lisa Bryan, KP News

The Mustard Seed Project, headquartered in the Crandall Center above Key Center, is sporting a new paint job, new hardwood floors and new executive director Eric Blegen.

Blegen, 53, joined TMSP Nov. 1 after 17 years at Harmony Hill, a retreat center in Union for people dealing with cancer. He was its executive director for the last five years and oversaw a $5 million expansion, a project with demands for fundraising and logistics similar to the assisted living home TMSP is working to build along 154th Avenue Court NW, opposite the Crandall Center.

“I really enjoyed being project manager for all of that, so that was one of the things that appealed to me about the job here,” Blegen said.

Founded by Edie Morgan in 2006, TMSP provides services and programs ranging from yard work and transportation to assistance navigating Medicare and Social Security benefits for the KP elder community. A long-term goal has been to build homes for assisted living for seniors unable to remain in their own homes but who want to stay on the KP. 

Morgan left the post of executive director in March 2017. A search committee consisting of TMSP board members, a staff member, a volunteer and community leaders reviewed 25 applicants before offering Blegen the position to succeed her. 

“This place wouldn’t be here without Edie Morgan seeing the need for it, coming up with the idea and putting it together,” Blegen said. “I’ve got some big shoes to fill.” 

Blegen also praised TMSP staff and board for their work with consultant Linda Hanson over the past few months reorganizing the operation’s structure and developing new job descriptions to streamline the workload. 

“I think the mission is really compelling,” Blegen said. “I had an experience in the ’90s where I became friends with this woman in Union whose husband has passed away a couple of years before. I ended up getting to know her really well; getting her garden back up to speed; getting groceries. She was 92. She made it another four years. I was able to help her stay in her home, and die in her home. It was a gift to be able to do that for her. I saw the impact it had on her and you can multiply that around here; it’s just something that I am excited about being able to give to folks.”

TMSP has a staff of six and a host of volunteers, including four in the office, 15 drivers and another dozen or more doing everything from writing grants to stacking firewood, or just visiting with people who can’t get out as much as they’d like.

“We always need drivers,” said Mary Morris, volunteer coordinator, “and anyone who just wants to help.”

The Crandall Center is often busy with classes like fall prevention and programs that bring in outside speakers.

“Then of course there’s the KSIC desk (Key Senior Information Center), where anyone can drop in and ask questions, get assistance and learn about Medicare and other things,” Blegen said. “We recently helped one woman get her Social Security benefits restored.”

“This building also has a lot of possibilities,” he said. “We’ve got this commercial kitchen almost ready to go; one of the things we’re going to do is have a process in place to rent it.” There are also two large open spaces suitable for meetings or catered events.

Separate from its daily operations and programming is TMSP’s campaign to build its senior housing project. “It’s turned out to be a little more complicated and a little more expensive than originally envisioned, which is always the case I think with every capital project—ever,” Blegen said. “Right now our goal is to break ground this fall or winter.”

The plan calls for three buildings of 10 units each in a single longhouse concept, according to TMSP Board President Sara Thompson. (Thompson also serves as president of the KP News publishing board and is a frequent contributor.)

“Essentially every person will occupy a private bedroom in a 10-bedroom home with its own entry, and one of the three homes will be for memory care,” she said. “Our feeling is that we should be able to get most people taken care of here until the end of their lives.”

“The other thing that was really crucial to all of us was to have 30 percent Medicaid beds; our analysts said that should meet the needs of the community out here, but that also increased our fundraising needs,” Thompson said.

“The entire cost of the project is about $10.5 million, coming from grants and loans. That includes the land, the building and site development, and the cost of getting the program up and running, hiring people, training them and all of that. It’s not cheap, but it’s not $10.5 million of bricks and mortar,” she said.

“We will have an operating partner that will be managing all the staff and making sure everything is in compliance,” Blegen said. “It’s about 25 new jobs altogether, including a dietician to help with meal planning, an RN doing oversight, and staff for things like maintenance.”

“We’re sort of evolving and understanding that this isn’t really just building senior housing; it really is a community development project,” Thompson said. “We’re working on partnerships to improve what people can get out here to keep them in their own homes. That’s one of the exciting things about this project—I think we’ll get leverage from having housing.” 

“The good news is we’ve raised $1.7 of $2.7 million that we need from foundations and donors, so we’re more than halfway there,” Blegen said. “I’m really impressed with the success Mustard Seed has had with grants. I think that must mean they’ve been doing something right.”

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