A group of Fairfax residents recently entered the former Lewinsville Elementary School in McLean -- to live.
The two-story brick building, where the county's children learned reading, writing and arithmetic for 22 years, is the first surplus school in the metropolitan area to be converted to apartments for the elderly, said Deirdre Coyne of the county's Department of Housing and Community Development. Unlike school conversion projects in the District of Columbia, the renovation was funded by county rather than state or federal money, Coyne said.
Because the population of school-aged children has decreased and the number of elderly has increased in Fairfax over the past 10 years, conversion of the vacant school was a logical choice in the county's search for affordable housing for the elderly, Coyne said.
From the outside it still looks like class is in session: Yellow school buses are parked out front next to an immense grass playing field with soccer goals and a backstop. On a recent snow day, neighborhood children, temporarily free of academic cares, rolled snowmen in front of the school.
Inside on the second floor, however, each classroom has been divided into two freshly carpeted efficiency apartments. The school's library has been transformed into a dining room and a commercial kitchen, and a sitting room holds a television, couches and easy chairs.
The 16 women and four men living in Lewinsville Center Residences were chosen from a pool of more than 200 people who inquired about the center, said resident coordinator Ronda Anderson. Anderson, who works for the Fellowship Square Foundation, which manages three other senior citizen apartment complexes in Northern Virginia, is in charge of coordinating meals and social outings and is available in case of an emergency.
The group started moving in over the past month, so in some ways it seems like the first uncertain days in a new school as people get to know one another.
Bertha Moore, 88, born 30 miles away in Loudoun County, said she wants to meet more of the residents. Because of several serious falls in her three-story house, she moved first to a Falls Church garden apartment, which was too expensive, and then to Lewinsville Center, where the rent averages $250 a month.
"I like to be with people," Moore said, "but I hardly know anybody here because I don't walk a lot."
B.J. Roethlein, 69, drove a Trailways bus for 28 years and worked as a guard until emphysema forced him to quit two years ago. He said that when a community meal plan starts, people will socialize more.
"As soon as they get that cafeteria going, you'll be able to eat there every night. They're starting recreation activities. I really like it here," Roethlein said.
The dining room still looks unused, in stark contrast to the individual apartments with the furniture, photographs and knickknacks that mirror their owners' personalities. For the past several weeks, residents have been cooking in their apartments or having hot meals brought by Fairfax Hospital's Meals-on-Wheels program.
The Lewinsville Center still has not found a cook, but Anderson said she hopes to find one in time to start the meal plan by mid-February.
There are other ice-breakers, too. Roethlein owns a black-and-white Lhasa Apso dog named Angel that keeps him company and entertains some of his neighbors. Already, Angel recognizes the footsteps of Rita Colby, who takes the dog for a daily walk, Roethlein said.
"And in case you don't know it, she loves me too," Colby interjected.
The puppy is also a favorite of the children who attend the Lewinsville Center's first-floor day care center. "They're crazy about that dog downstairs. She loves kids," Roethlein said.
Mary Keinath moved to Northern Virginia from Illinois three years ago to be near her grandchildren. In crisp white pants and a fuchsia blouse, Keinath, 73, attributes her youthfulness and independence to having to raise a family alone (she was widowed when she was 28).
"If I had to go to work to support my children," Keinath said about her former 12-hour workdays in a hospital budget office, "I would rather do it alone."
Keinath sleeps on a Japanese bed called a futon and refers to her apartment with its spare, oriental-style furniture as her "home away from home," because the small size of the Lewinsville group makes everyone close.
"Eventually you become like a family," Keinath said.
But there is still some stress in adjusting to the smaller living area and to each other, Keinath said. Some residents are impatient with the temporary lack of a community meal, and others want to be independent, she noted.
"We've been here only a month. You got to get the bugs out of it," Keinath said.
Gus Snyder, 86, who once lived in a close-knit apartment of senior citizens, said the Lewinsville Center has great potential to be the same. His method?
"My door is never shut," Snyder said.