Robert Thurston aims to make College Park a livable community for all ages
By Michael Purdie
Robert Thurston moved to College Park, in 1989, for two main reasons: He liked the energy of a college town, and he was looking for a young and vibrant community in which to raise a family. But even as the city checked off a lot of boxes for him, it still took Thurston time to feel at home here.
“When I first moved in, I just knew who my neighbors were next to me because I left first thing in the morning and came back last thing in the evening working,” he said. “It was probably about two years before I realized that I lived on a block where I was the only one who wasn’t related to each other.”
Thurston has come a long way since the days of not knowing his neighbors. He’s worked to sink deep roots in the community and strives to help other residents feel connected and supported, too. And as president of Neighbors Helping Neighbors of College Park (NHN-CP), Thurston demonstrates his dedication every day in everyday ways.
NHN-CP, which was founded in 2018, supports residents over 55 and those with disabilities with a range of free services, including transportation to medical appointments and other activities, assistance with household chores such as light cleaning and snow shoveling, and regular calls and check-ins to lessen isolation.
“Our main mission is to create a community of volunteers to act as a safety net for our senior residents to allow them to stay in their homes,” Thurston said. “It does make a difference.”
Thurston joined the nonprofit in early 2021 and stepped into his role as president in July 2021. The organization currently has close to 20 volunteers, eight of whom are also board members. According to the organization’s website (nhn-cp.org), NHN-CP aims to supplement but not replace existing government services or family assistance and to support residents who may not qualify for other assistance programs.
In addition to his work with NHN-CP, Thurston also serves as an ethics commissioner for the city and president of the Lakeland Civic Association, an organization in the city’s historically Black neighborhood. As president of the civic association, he also sits on the board of the Lakeland Community Heritage Project, which works to preserve the community’s history.
As if that were not enough civic engagement, Thurston has also served on the city’s Senior Advisory Committee, a group established to advise the mayor and city council on initiatives supporting senior residents, since 2019. Members of the committee are appointed by the council.
“The reason why I like the [committee] is because it allows the community to address needs, and it’s not just asking the city to make a change … it’s a group of volunteers who are looking at these things and trying to see what assets we have in the city and how we can connect those assets so that they are accessible for everyone,” Thurston said.
AARP defines a livable community as one that allows residents to stay in their homes as they age and serves all residents’ needs, regardless of their age or background. To gain credentials through the AARP program, a community must meet goals in eight areas: housing, transportation, civic partnership and employment, communications and information, outdoor spaces and buildings, community and health services, opportunities for social participation, and standards of respect and inclusion.
Thurston underscored that AARP’s approach promotes well-being across generations. “I think there’s value in being a livable community for all age groups. We all transition – an 8-year-old will someday be 80 years old,” he said. “It all fits together in this concept of not just thinking about individual age groups, but thinking about it as a continuum.”
Thurston sees addressing transportation needs as integral to both his work on the committee and with NHN-CP. Every community has residents who can’t drive, and some College Park neighborhoods — College Park Woods, for instance — are largely accessible only by car.
Thurston thinks creatively about solutions to transportation problems. He sees walking and biking trails that incorporate parks and playgrounds as a means of connecting residents to their city while connecting generations, too. “The young parent or kids are just looking for a great playground to play at, the more fit adult is just looking for a good path, and an older person might walk along those paths and may need some place to sit,” said Thurston. “And if we all collectively get together, I think we can benefit everybody.”