We caught up with Thomas Steinborn and David Wong, co- founders of FRIEDA for this Q&A…
Why and how did you get into the aging space? Why was FRIEDA the path you took?
Thomas: “Many startups are born because of personal reasons (passions, life events…). And that is how it was in our case too.
One day I felt that I was getting old in my job and that I needed a renewed sense of purpose. This combined with the retirement of my mother and her new situation, and remembering my grandmother FRIEDA and all the things she used to do for her family as I was growing up until her long life of 87 years came to an end, served as inspiration for FRIEDA.
At a time when more aspects of our lives are digitized and become virtual (stores are online, we meet and communicate with people online), and services and productions are outsourced globally (we are losing our creative manual skills), I longed for more human physical interaction.
My thought process was simple:
My training as a designer kicked in. I started imagining a creative space where people of all ages could come together to share, make things, learn, discover or just to be with people!
When David learned about the idea of FRIEDA, he was in a similar situation in life.
He had just changed career, turning his passion for cooking and baking into his profession.
That is when we teamed up, and food became part of the project. We analyzed, researched what was there for people like our mothers, and soon enough, people like us.
Being labeled a senior citizen in the USA starts at 50 and the AARP card!
Being in our mid 40s changed our approach to designing FRIEDA. Rather than creating something exclusively with older adults in mind, we were designing with ourselves growing older in mind. What matters to us? What do we enjoy doing? What interests do we have?”
How is FRIEDA dealing with COVID?
Blue as a butterfly.
The most visible achievement FRIEDA and the community are most proud of is the large scale installation that adorns the exterior and entrance of FRIEDA: “Blue as a Butterfly” (#Blueasabutterfly). Blue butterflies are not only rare but are also a symbol of renewal, hope and luck.
Shortly after the lockdown was announced, FRIEDA recognized that the community would benefit from an uplifting, creative collaboration during quarantine. Thomas and Gay Walling created #Blueasabutterfly, a large-scale installation involving the community. Every step of this new project was designed to bring people together in a safe way.
From March to August 2020, over 60 community members of all ages have contributed from home by cutting out more than 20,000 pixelated blue butterflies from card stock.
With detailed procedures to ensure safety, FRIEDA mailed, delivered, or prepared for pickup packets containing the printed sheets. A diverse group of people came together from all over the city—from South Philly to Mount Airy and the surrounding suburbs—to help complete this fun project.
Since its opening in 2015, by choice, FRIEDA at 320 Walnut Street has been Wi-Fi free. Our goal was and remains to foster physical human interaction. That said, FRIEDA organized computer classes at local senior adult centers as part of our outreach efforts, including workshops about how to open a Facebook account to reconnect with family members or how to use apps on an iPhone.
We never imagined that FRIEDA could become virtual, even temporarily, until COVID hit.
FRIEDA is based on a simple idea: people need human interaction. The pandemic made people who are part of the FRIEDA community realize how important FRIEDA is especially in the challenging times we live in now.
In less than a week following the shut down in Philadelphia, we moved most of our social gatherings, classes, and workshops online. (541 zoom meetings until January 10 2021 and counting)
Our staff as well as some “younger” volunteers offered their help with running errands for people at risk in the neighborhood, for free!
FRIEDA also offered a pre-cooked dinner plan that we deliver in person. It is nice to have a familiar face knock on your door and share a few warm words.
Many people in the community have also supported FRIEDA financially during this time to take care of the staff that was furloughed, young and old, and to help pay for group health insurance.
From March 2020 to date, FRIEDA was only closed on public holidays! (6 days total)
While many businesses made the rational decision to close until better times return in the spring, this was not an option for FRIEDA, for as long as the financial losses would not put the existence of FRIEDA at risk. We view everything FRIEDA does as a service to our community.
What is it about Philadelphia that makes FRIEDA work?
Why have you chosen Philadelphia for your endeavor?
In addition to Philadelphia, we looked at socio-economic, socio-demographic data and using other criteria for cities such as Cleveland, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Portland OR… and ended up choosing Philadelphia, other things being equal, for personal preference. All in all we spent less than a day walking around Northern Liberties, Old City and Center City – a first time for both in the city – and we liked what we saw.
Luck helped us along the way. After many months looking for an empty space to open FRIEDA from all corners of Philadelphia, we stumbled on 320 Walnut Street, a space that had been empty and unloved for nearly 20 years! With limited financial means and thousands of hours peeling old paint from the walls and ceiling, we brought our idea of FRIEDA to reality.
What’s the most common intergenerational item that people order?
Community! “FRIEDA is a different space” sounds cliché, but it is what brings people together. When asked “What does FRIEDA mean to you?”, many regulars answer “My home away from home”, “Family”, “A safe place”. The physical space is like a huge white canvas, with infinite possibilities to transform. This openness can be intimidating for some people and we are aware that it is not to everybody’s taste. It does appeal to people who are intrigued by the quirkiness. People who have curiosity and are open-minded tend to enjoy hanging out with others, regardless of age, cultural, ethnic, or social background.
People come to FRIEDA to meet with family and friends or to meet people.
Secondly, learning new skills or acquiring knowledge are important, and let’s not forget eating some of our cookies or ordering a boeuf bourguignon for dinner to reheat and enjoy at home!
What is something that FRIEDA does that people wouldn’t expect?
FRIEDA operates for now as a for-profit. Everyone expects FRIEDA to be a non-profit.
If you could show a young person their life thirty years into the future, what would you hope that they would discover that might change their lives today?
Don’t take yourself too seriously and be open (minded) towards others. It is rewarding to meet and learn from others: especially from different social, cultural, ethnic backgrounds, or age. Sometimes we don’t allow things to happen because of fears. Curiosity helps, respect, too!
What are FRIEDA’s goals for 2021?
First, we must get through this crisis and do everything to stay healthy.
Once the pandemic recedes and it is safe to socialize again, we look forward to opening our space and let people gather again, with a full resumption of our program activities. The reopening will be celebrated with a large-scale community art exhibition that we had to cancel last year. We are also planning trips and excursions with FRIEDA excursions.
The biggest goal would be to bring FRIEDA to other cities. To do so we will need to find some partners.
For more about FRIEDA, visit friedaforgenerations.com