Five decades ago, Free Methodist pastors and lay leaders felt called to build a Christian community that would provide affordable housing for pastors, missionaries, educators and other senior citizens whose lives have changed into the direction of retirement.
This year, Warm Beach Senior Community celebrates 50 years of serving retired people in the beautiful setting of Stanwood, Washington, between Puget Sound and the Cascade Mountains. The 90-acre senior community serves more than 350 residents age 62 and older.
The community followed the founding of the neighboring Warm Beach Camp and Conference Center. Current Warm Beach Senior Community resident and retired Free Methodist Pastor and Warm Beach Camp Director Bob McDowell’s parents, Elmer and Eva McDowell, led the effort to establish the senior community that area Free Methodists had seen as a need along with the need for a church camp. He said his parents sold their grocery business and moved to the area in 1957 to begin developing the camp. Elmer and Eva were the camp’s first employees, and they spent five years doing everything from clearing the land to hosting work teams.
“They increasingly felt the burden for the senior ministry,” Bob McDowell said. “They then terminated at the camp, and Dad supported himself selling real estate for a while” as the conference’s new senior board proceeded with plans for the community.
Elmer McDowell became the development director and first general manager of what opened in 1967 as Warm Beach Manor with 46 apartments for independent living. According to Bob McDowell, Eva was burdened when a resident became seriously ill. She told her husband, “Elmer, we have got to go to work for the Lord and get the money raised and get a nursing center.”
Warm Beach now offers four independent living options along with an assisted living facility, skilled nursing, outpatient therapy and rehabilitation.
“People come here, and they have their private dwelling place, and then when they become ill or can’t care for themselves, they readily move over to assisted living,” said Erle Wirth, a former Free Methodist pastor and Pacific Northwest Conference superintendent, who has lived at Warm Beach Senior Community for two and a half years. “That’s a rather smooth thing and, I think, a wonderful thing.”
Wirth’s wife, Grace, had to be hospitalized shortly after the couple moved to the independent living portion of the community. She was then sent to Warm Beach’s nursing section for nine days. “We found a very capable staff here, and it was so convenient for me. I just had to go across the parking lot to visit Grace,” he said. “The staff was very, very helpful.”
In interviews with Light + Life, residents praised the community’s facilities and staff while also emphasizing the Christian atmosphere.
“It’s a wonderful Christian community and very unique in that we have all of the living levels from independent through nursing,” said Lois Lingren, a 22-year resident who was first attracted to the community because of its Free Methodist affiliation. “It’s just a friendly, loving community. … We love each other. We take care of each other. We watch out for each other, and we know that we’re going to be taken care of to the end.”
Lingren appreciates the ongoing connection between the denomination, community and the local Warm Beach FMC. “We have the Free Methodist Church close by, which we are fortunate to be able to attend,” she said.
Joyce Dodge — a 17-year Warm Beach resident whose parents, Lyle (former denominational evangelism director and conference superintendent) and Clara Northrup, were charter members and whose husband, Wesley Dodge, served as the community’s chaplain from 2000 to 2013 — believes the denomination and senior community strengthen each other. She said the community has “a very strong Free Methodist base” and is of “great value to the Free Methodist Church in many ways — not only monetarily but because of the leaders from the church and from Seattle Pacific [University] who have lived here.”
Dodge plans the music schedule and plays the organ for worship services within the community. “I know that we are one of the few retirement homes in this area of the Pacific Northwest that has a vibrant worship service and musical program and good preaching,” she said.
Bob and Kitty Magee, former missionaries for Free Methodist World Missions in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and for Bible Study Fellowship in Kenya, were concerned about finding a suitable place to retire because, as missionaries, they did not have much income to set aside for retirement. They visited retirement communities in several states but were drawn five years ago to Warm Beach in part because they attended Seattle Pacific University with some of the founders of the community and the neighboring camp.
“The Lord really led us, opened the door for us and pushed us in, and after we got here, we could see why and what the Lord had in mind for us,” said Bob Magee, who has become an active volunteer known for distributing mail to residents in the nursing section, answering phones for nurses, and leading Bible studies.
Magee’s volunteerism is not unique. According to the community’s website, 80 percent of residents share their time and talents by volunteering. Opportunities include serving in the dining room, assisting in maintenance, gardening in the atrium and working in the community’s store.
Director of Advancement Mark Milan said that some residents face a change of direction “from independent living to a lifestyle that requires more care, like assisted living or skilled nursing care. We desire to provide a Christian environment for this to happen. Often, if we are working with a couple, one person may need to transition while another remains independent. Thankfully, this can happen here with ease.”
Go to warmbeach.org or call 800-652-6302 for more information about Warm Beach Senior Community.
Jeff Finley has served as the managing editor of Light + Life since 2011. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for Sun-Times Media. He serves as a volunteer youth leader at John Wesley Free Methodist Church.2