Mustard Seed Project Receives Major Grant

And it came from a man who used to dress up as Santa Claus.


Six months after breaking ground on the first assisted-living homes for elders on the Key Peninsula — a dream that took over a decade to launch — the Mustard Seed Project received the largest donation in its 16-year history to help complete it.

The William A. Looney Family Foundation awarded TMSP a $3 million grant in April to develop the new campus in Key Center, expand support services for KP elders, and to provide a reserve fund for residents in need once they have moved into the new homes.

“It’s pretty amazing, we’re very grateful,” said Executive Director Eric Blegen. “It doesn’t eliminate our need to continue to fundraise and all that, but it gives us some great startup funding for these programs so that we can get them going quickly.”

The grant will fund the many moving parts of three separate programs, Blegen said: reducing social isolation for elders ($1,100,000) by expanding programs like the existing “Santa for Seniors” events to bring elders together; creating a connected campus between the assisted living homes and TMSP offices at the Crandall Center ($1,150,000); and creating a fund to provide a home for life for elders in need ($750,000).

“It gives us the funds to really develop the campus,” Blegen said. “It’s about 6 acres on both sides of the road with the Crandall Center. We’ll have ADA accessible trails on both sides, and something really innovative: a playground designed for adults. Aside from the fun and fitness aspect, it’s also an opportunity for visiting kids and grandkids to hang out together on the playground.”

TMSP had also long planned for extensive gardens, a vision which is now within reach.

“This covers the cost for raised beds and a greenhouse,” Blegen said. “One of the things I’m excited about too is the residents and the staff and all of us could help grow a fair amount of the food for the meals for residents. We’re going to have a composting system that will recycle food waste and use it in the garden beds and have a whole cycle in place for the residents.

“A core element of the Green House Project model (upon which TMSP homes and management are based) is that our elders need to feel useful. Most people want to continue to contribute if they can, and the garden is a way for people to do that,” he said.

The final component of the grant may be the most critical, even in a plan designed to meet critical needs.

“We have 30% of the beds reserved for low income folks, but if all those beds are full and a resident spends down their assets, what happens to them? We don’t want to make them leave — ever. This fund will help those people bridge the gap between running out of their own funds and a Medicaid bed becoming available,” Blegen said.

“It’s not enough for an endowment and we want to be able to use the principal as needed, but if we do that well and this is a story that people understand — that people can get into that situation and need that help — then over the long-term that should encourage others to add back to the fund with bequests and donations, so that we can grow it over time.”

The Looney foundation first contacted TMSP in 2017.

“We have a pretty deep relationship with the Looney Foundation,” said Marion Sharp, TMSP fund development director. “The main thing that they are interested in is doing things that help foster Bill Looney’s dream of reducing isolation for older people.

“It all started with visiting his mother at a nursing home and discovering how many other people were there on Christmas Day, and lonesome. He started coming as Santa, and he really wanted that to be a movement.”

Looney died in 2015. His estate attorney and longtime friend, Pam Yee, started working for him in the 1990s, she said.

“I got hooked up with Mustard Seed a few years ago. Bill was a realtor and he owned 20, 25 properties out there I was selling off. I visited with Bill’s wife and a couple of board members and thought, oh my gosh, Bill would’ve been all over this place.”

She said Looney started visiting his mom’s nursing home dressed as Santa when he saw the effect his attention had.

“Bill would don his Santa suit and go to his mom’s — his mom lived to 99 — and the whole group there came to life. To have people who hadn’t even spoken for six months get all excited and say, ‘Thanks Santa,’ that’s incredible,” Yee said. “He put that Santa suit on once and walked down the streets of Seattle handing out Hershey bars; I thought we were going to be arrested.”

Looney created the William A. Looney Family Foundation to spread “Santa for Seniors” to as many elder organizations as possible, and to help keep them running.

“He never wanted anybody to forget the forgotten, and that’s what he really felt about seniors,” Yee said.

“We orchestrated getting the Santa for Seniors going at Mustard Seed,” Yee said. “We started out pretty small, just replacing their freezer in that kitchen, getting the place cleaned (in the Crandall Center). But just what they were able to do with not a lot was astounding. You know, we give cash, but if you don’t have people to implement your plan for the cash, it doesn’t do a lot.

“These people know what they’re doing at the Mustard Seed,” she said. “Eric and Marion are just fantastic. They work so hard.”

Yee asked TMSP to submit a grant request to create new programs and finish the new homes and grounds. “I said, ‘OK, we’re going to give you a big grant, I’m talking millions now. And Bill would be all in supporting this.’”

“I can’t wait to see the building when it’s done,” Yee said.