MEA: A One-Year Pandemic Retrospective
It was exactly one year ago when MEA had to close for business. It all happened so abruptly, with the World Health Organization announcing that we’d slid into a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. We had our 50th MEA cohort of 18 mid-lifers on campus at the time, scheduled to leave on March 15, with another cohort scheduled to arrive that same day.
My co-founders (Christine and Jeff) and I were a bit dumbfounded...or maybe we were just dumb founders (excuse the humor). What do you do when 98% of your business is international travelers, many of them—due to age or medical condition—part of the more vulnerable demographic? How do we keep the thirty local families working with us here in El Pescadero, Mexico, financially secure during a time when we may have no revenue coming in for the next who-knows-how-many months (turns out it was six and a half months before we had guests again)?
Yet here we are 12 months later, feeling stronger than ever. The past year has proven that—with resilience and adaptability—a fledgling, young business can flourish even against the odds. As it turned out, we were able to pay all of our local employees 75% of their normal salaries and wages during this more than half-year shutdown period. While it wasn’t easy, we were helped mightily by our MEA alumni community that contributed nearly $300,000 to what many call their alma mater to help support MEA in our time of need.
Our small but mighty team rallied to not only “build the seats while flying the plane” but also to envision a bright future. We all wear many hats at MEA and pushing up our sleeves while holding each other up is how we roll. I’m so proud of this team.
It is with deep gratitude that I wanted to share with you 12 separate “pandemic projects” that sprouted from this period, not to gloat, but to observe how a crisis can be an opportunity.
Thanks to so many of you who helped us get through this period.
- In tandem with MEA alum Jenn Maer, we rebranded the Modern Elder Academy as MEA with a new logo and website.
- We built a new wing of our campus with two new bedrooms, a private bathroom for another room, and an additional massage treatment room with the assistance of our lead designer (and an owner) Oren Bronstein and project manager (and in-house shaman) Saul Kuperstein.
- We created a new non-profit, AGE (Association for Growth and Education), dedicated to supporting mid-lifers who are navigating their midlife transitions. AGE raised and gave away $135,000 to the following institutions in 2020: MEA, Encore.org, Esalen Institute, and Stanford Center for Longevity. Thanks to my EA Lilly Griffin for all of her hard work on this.
- As the co-developer of the Baja Sage Regenerative Community concept just a mile from MEA’s campus, Jeff successfully sold almost all of the homes in the project even before construction started.
- Working with MEA alum Skylar Skikos, Jeff did interviews with 23 different thought leaders on the concept of what a Regenerative Community can be.
- Collaborating with MEA alum Ingo Rauth (a Canadian academic), we wrote a white paper, The Emergence of Long Life Learning, that got critical acceptance in the higher education community and will now appear in a prestigious journal.
- At a point last summer when it was clear the virus was spiking, and it wasn’t wise to reopen in October for workshops, Christine came up with the brilliant idea of pivoting to long-term stays with an open-air community and lighter programming, what we call Sabbatical Sessions. This has proven to have exceptionally high customer satisfaction, and we’ve yet to have a guest test positive for the virus. We have some space available still over the next couple months.
- MEA’s Head of Admissions and Communications (and Editor-In-Chief), Debra Amador DeLaRosa, swerved with Christine to serve our sabbaticalites, conceived AIR (our Activist in Residence program that awards Sabbatical Sessions to ageism activists), revamped our alumni newsletter into the weekly “AF,” and created the passport branding for our alumni membership.
- MEA alum Kari Henley created and is Director of MEA Online, an eight-week program of “digital intimacy” focused on transitions. MEA Online launched with a very successful beta of 90 people in the fall, followed by a general public opening last month, with more than 350 people signed up (including an exclusive alumni group). Thanks to Jeff and Christine for all their help with this as well.
- Australian MEA alum Gabriela Domicelj, in tandem with MEA’s Director of Alumni Programs and Community Development, Leslie Bartlett, created our Corazón membership program that allows our alums to go deeper in their MEA journey.
- We officially brought Skylar Skikos on as our fourth MEA partner and the Chief Development Officer. We also determined that Santa Fe, New Mexico would be our number one target for our first U.S. Regenerative Community and closed escrow on a tranquil 2,566-acre ranch that will open in 2023. Here’s a website that outlines our plans for MEA Regenerative Communities.
- The four MEA partners enjoyed a four-day retreat at our new ranch (along with designer Oren Bronstein and regenerative farmer Jan Loeffler Bird) to develop a five-year strategic plan for MEA.
12 months. 12 projects. And to think, last spring, we were wondering if we needed to “Snow White” MEA and let the organization sleep for a year or more during the pandemic. Quite the opposite. While it’s been a scary time, it’s also been one of intense innovation and productivity.
I want to give a special thanks to Neel Sharma, our Head of Strategic Marketing, who has been intimately involved with much of this and was the inventor and producer of Wisdom Well, and MEA alum Bill Apablasa (Wisdom Well editor), who makes my writing sound so much better. Neel, in tandem with alum Laura Alfano, also helped with our Happy Hour series in concert with AGEIST founder David Stewart in which we got to interview midlife celebs like Danny Meyer, Norma Kamali, and Michael Franti and the 18 episodes being available here.
I have no idea what the next 12 months will bring, but I do know that Winston Churchill said during World War II, “When you’re going through hell, just keep going.”