Eric Wilden, executive director at My Way, stands in front of the organization’s new headquarters at 7051 Germantown Ave. The sign in the window shows the many services offered by My Way to local residents 55 and older. (Photo by Heather Drew)

by Lou Mancinelli

“My Way” is the affordable not-for-profit personal care program (with no annual fees) for Northwest Philadelphia residents 55 and older, founded in Mt. Airy in 2010 that has grown to include 2300 members, and provides services for 150 to 200 local seniors a week.

My Way recently relocated to 7051 Germantown Ave. in the former Neighborhood Interfaith Movement (NIM) building, located across the street from Mt. Airy Playground, a block south of its original location at 7104 Germantown Ave.

“I think of it as a sign that My Way is here to stay,” said Eric Wilden, executive director at My Way, who worked at NIM, the co-founder of My Way, before taking over as executive director last July.

According to Wilden, the group’s goal is to help seniors stay in their homes longer. My Way’s caregivers provide services ranging from rides to the grocery store and doctors’ appointments to house and yard work and pet care. The services are for seniors who want to remain independent and live in their own homes but can benefit from a little extra help that may be otherwise hard to find when they want it.

“If we can’t do it, we can point them to someone who can,” said Wilden. That includes trying to find someone to accompany a member to Washington D.C. to see the cherry trees blossom in the spring. Or finding a server to help with a member’s holiday party. “We’re helping eliminate some of the isolation seniors feel,” said Wilden.

One elderly Chestnut Hill resident who is a member of My Way told us, “I had a large limb fall on my property. I didn’t know what to do because these things used to be done by my husband. I didn’t have anyone with references, plus there were safety issues to be considered. Initially, someone from My Way came out and explained their services to me. I feel quite comfortable using them now. If they don’t have a person on staff who can do the job, they get you in touch with someone who can. For someone like me who’s alone, it’s important to maintain the house. I can call them for most services.”

That seniors have a choice is something My Way wants to emphasize. The group is here to help if such help is wanted. Membership is free. Its caregivers’ services are available for $19.50 an hour. The price was raised from $18.75 this February. Trips to the airport are $30 each way.

The new location will allow for expanded services. It has offered personal care and non-medical companionship services since its inception, but now, according to Wilden, they are interested in offering more of that type of help. It is a licensed homecare provider by the state’s Department of Health.

My Way’s caregivers are a group of 45 employees hired after they have passed through a series of background checks, including drug, criminal, driving and a two-step tuberculosis test. Some are My Way members themselves; others are college students working summer jobs or graduate students and others who balance part-time jobs.

“We strongly believe it is the wave of the future to help people stay in their homes,” said Joe Lukach, CEO of the Ralston Center, a co-founder of My Way.

Northwest Philadelphia was selected for a pilot program because of its population and the fact that it already had some services for seniors available. In May, 2010, the program was launched through a partnership between NIM and the Ralston Center. The Ralston Center, located in University City, has provided aging services in Philadelphia for 196 years.

At My Way, Wilden’s role is an extension of his education. Raised in the Lehigh Valley, Wilden, 44, earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Ursinus College in 1992. He moved west to Salt Lake City for 10 years, where he worked for environmental groups, grassroots campaigns and fundraising at the University of Utah.

He later enrolled at Naropa University, founded by a Tibetan Buddhist teacher in Boulder, Co. He earned a master’s of divinity with a focus in Buddhism in 2003 and moved to Philadelphia, where he worked for Clean Water Action (CWA) before starting at NIM in 2006.

When NIM filed for bankruptcy last fall, there were concerns about My Way’s future, but Wilden insists the relocation represents “our roots growing deeper into the community.”

Wilden, who lived in Mt. Airy for seven years until he moved with his wife and two daughters to Elkins Park two years ago, thinks a real impact can be made at the neighborhood level.

“I’d rather create community on a smaller geographic scale doing something on the ground level,” he said. “For me it’s about personal connection.”

For more information, visit www.mywayonline.org or call 215-525-5470.