By Pam McDonald

Foresight Radio Host Pam McDonald talks with Stephen Bailey, Kendal Corporation’s SVP for New Business Development, and Susan O’Connell, a teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center, about their company’s partnership to build and operate Enso Village, a Zen-inspired CCRC in Healdsburg, California. Below are edited excerpts from the interview. You can listen to the entire episode here.

SUSAN: The idea for the partnership between the Kendal Corporation and the San Francisco Zen Center started at the Zen Center. We had various missions we wanted to accomplish, including housing our founding generation – our first-generation of meditation teachers. We looked around for a partner because this is not our business, and everyone said that Kendal was the A-Team.

So, we sought them out early. And the wonderful longtime director of Kendal, John Diffey, was very kind and basically said go away, figure it out, and come back. So, making a long story short, we did. We came back. Our values are so aligned, and Kendal was so willing to take this leap with us.

Kendal Was “In” from the Beginning

STEVE: Susan and I have been working on this together for six years or so. I think we’re quite in alignment on most things. But from Kendal’s perspective, because of our history and our reputation, we do get a lot of opportunities and this one clearly was special right from the beginning. The values alignment truly is remarkable, as is our ability to work together. We have this wonderful vision of a community based around mindfulness and meditation. We were in right from the beginning.

SUSAN: We found a beautiful location in Healdsburg, California, a charming town in the Wine Country, and a beautiful parcel of land on which we are going to build 221 independent living apartments, 24 memory care, and 30 assisted living. It’s a CCRC Life Plan community. These are all words that I have learned over the past six years.

Unique Features and Amenities

SUSAN: One of the distinguishing features is a meditation hall in the center of the courtyards. There’s also a small area where we’re going to do farming. We have two eating venues, one of which is strictly vegetarian. It’s modeled on a restaurant the San Francisco’s Zen Center founded about 45 years of ago called Greens Restaurant.

STEVE: I would add that the new community will have the typical amenities you might expect of a Wine Country CCRC — two dining venues, meeting spaces, common areas, a fitness-wellness center. The central courtyard features a meditation hall, a single-purpose zendo, which is really a place for spiritual reflection. Some other unique features are a tearoom, the vegetarian restaurant, and programming innovations too. Some are fully formed, and others are yet to be created.

SUSAN: The tearoom is near the yoga room. It’s a place where one can go and just pour a cup of tea, but it also has some elements of a formal tearoom in Japanese practice. There’s an opportunity to transition into a more formal tea ceremony in that space. Out in front of the tearoom we’re using a Japanese tea garden designer to make the entranceway have the flavor of a Japanese tea garden.

Fulfilling A Promise

SUSAN: The Zen Center got interested in this because we have a founding generation to whom we promised a retirement environment, sort of room and board for life. We couldn’t accommodate everyone unless we turned one of our three centers into a senior living community and none of them would function well that way.

So, we knew we needed to create a new community to allow these teachers to be ensconced in the middle of a community and share our way of life. We’ve been living together for 50 years, so we have certain community practices, certain spiritual practices that we think will be helpful to the rest of the people who move in.

It’s important to us on the Zen Center side that we not devolve into a kind of new-age way of approaching aging, but more authentic practices. So, a spiritual director will be overseeing that in collaboration with the executive director. It probably won’t be me because I may be retired by then. We’ll see. I will be living there.

STEVE: The word “authentic” is one you’ll hear, one that we like to use to describe this idea, this community. You’ve already heard things like the tearoom, the spiritual director, and the fact that there’ll be 20 retired Zen teachers in residence in this community. So, this is the opposite of a marketing approach. It is an authentic partnership and it’s a community built around ideas that are hundreds, thousands of years old. And so, we were trying to embody that.

Kendal is Quaker-based. It operates in the federal model, so each of its communities is different. They’re independent yet supported by the corporate office and each has its own unique character. Enso Village is among the most unique or will be. It’s Kendal’s first effort, first community, on the West Coast.

A Combination of Zen and Quaker

STEVE: The notion of inclusivity and valuing the individual are Quaker and Zen notions. We try to live and work in the spirit of Quaker values, and we have our own Kendal values and practices. And together with the Zen Center, we developed a set of guiding principles that are a combination of Zen and Quaker, of Kendal and Zen Center, that are intended to guide the operation of the community when it opens.

SUSAN: We called the community Enso Village. The Enso is a calligraphy. It’s a big sweeping brushstroke of a circle that doesn’t quite close. It has a sense of openness, transformation, enlightenment, and various other things. When people ask what that is, it gives us an opportunity to have a conversation.

Unprecedented Level of Interest

STEVE: We did our homework on marketing the community. We take the business aspect of this very seriously. Starting with the market and what’s unique about Enso, we were able to draw a much larger than typical percentage of our depositors from outside of the primary market area. Kendal is known for that. We have drawn people from something like 38 states. 

Before groundbreaking we have commitments. People transitioned from thousand-dollar deposits to 10% down and we are 95% occupied. It’s the nature of the way these communities are financed. Life plan communities are required to have a 70% presale to get financing. We achieved that level in about nine weeks. We’re now, as Susan said, at 95%. They’re only 11 units left.

Just this last week we offered bonds for sale, the tax-exempt bonds that will finance this community, a public offering. And on Wednesday we had an unprecedented level of interest from investors. We were able to secure a very, very favorable rate of finance because of that. So, now we have some proof that the market likes this idea and the investors like the idea, which is just what you want.

There’s never been a project like this before, ever. I have my own background in development — planning, construction. So, it’s been quite a learning experience here. We’ve learned about the value of partnership and how one plus one equals three, as well as the spiritual aspect of it too.

SUSAN: We are doing a series of depositor events on Zoom. We’re introducing our depositors to some of the principles that we will manifest in operations. The thing these people love best is breaking into small groups and getting to know each other. Because of COVID and because we’re bringing people information about mindfulness and about caring for each other in different ways, when we break into those small groups, conversations are deep.

Contemplative, Person-Centered Care

SUSAN: They’re connecting on an authentic level and that’s step number one for building trust. It’ll be a shock for some people to live communally. Although everyone has their own apartment and has opportunities to be an individual. We have a practice called contemplative care that we will be offering to the residents if they’d like to learn about it. And we will be using it to train the staff. It has to do with the spirit of “we’re all in this together”. We’re going to do that over the next couple of years and try to set up a basis for this communal life.

Contemplative care is very subtle, and these subtle differences make a big difference. Right before a caregiver, let’s say, walks into a room where someone has asked for some help, that caregiver stops, takes a breath, and goes into the room. Not in a hierarchical way, not like I’m, the caregiver and you’re the care receiver. But with the sense of “boy, isn’t this an interesting part of life when it gets difficult like this. It hasn’t happened to me yet, but it will.” It’s more person-centered. They’re people first and then some have skills that can help. It’s called non-dual caregiving.

“We’ve Captured Something Here That the Market Likes”

STEVE: We are now in a very intense time with Enso Village. We closed our financing in 10 days and we’ll start construction in a week. We’ll be hiring an executive director, perhaps in the first quarter next year. We will be keeping our eye on the ball looking ahead for opportunities. One of our board members a week or two ago used the phrase “lightning in a bottle.” We feel like we’ve captured something here that the market likes that and that investors like and something that the world needs if I might be so bold. We’ve talked about an Enso 2 sometime in the future.

Now we’ll need to hire 120 or so FTEs. That will be a challenge, just like it is all around the country. We at Kendal obviously view ourselves as an employer of choice and we intend to make this an extremely attractive place to work. I think the meditative aspect of it is part of that. People are drawn to this idea, and I am quite sure that will be attractive to at least some folks who are considering coming to work at Enso Village.

We expect to mobilize in a little less than three weeks, a 25-month construction period. So, in late summer, early fall of 2023, we will be opening. And this is part of a larger mixed-use project in Healdsburg, which includes a very nice boutique hotel, some retail, some affordable and workforce housing, which is important to us. Across the street, the city will build a new park. It’s a part of Healdsburg that is sort of the last area to be developed in a significant way, a beautiful site, beautiful location, just over a mile from the Healdsburg Plaza.

First Residents Will Inform How Enso Village Evolves

SUSAN: The fact that we’ve been communicating this concept of Zen-inspired senior living before it’s built has allowed people to create their own vision of what that might be. Kendal is very known for being resident-created, resident-driven. I am excited to see how this will evolve in ways that I haven’t imagined. Because it’s never existed before, what it will be is going to be very informed by the people who are now kind of pioneers. The people who are willing to go into something that doesn’t exist yet. We’re going to revolutionize aging, we don’t know what it’s going to be, which is exciting and scary a little bit.

STEVE: I don’t think we’ve touched yet on sustainability, but we had built-in requirements in our seed money financing. The project will be financed with green bonds, certified green bonds. This is the first, as far as we know, for any senior living community startup. There will be solar. It’s designed as an all-electric community for a future net-zero. The residents will be pushing hard for a net-zero community, and we’re close now, and will be soon after opening.

For more Information, visit the Enso Village website.