'It's a steal': Winona State students save on rent by living with seniors

Winona assisted living facility offers housing option for students

 Ashley McGaw has lunch with John Bernadot at Senior Living at Watkins.
Ashley McGaw, a senior at Winona State University, talks with John Bernadot (left) during lunch at Senior Living at Watkins, an assisted living center in Winona, Minn., on Sept. 18. McGaw and five other students live in a mansion connected to the facility for a low rent in exchange for volunteering at the home 10 to 20 hours a month.
Peter Cox | MPR News

There’s a new housing option for students at Winona State University.

But it helps to be good with letters and numbers.

“B 11, B one one,” nursing student Ashley McGaw is calling the day’s bingo game in the basement meeting room at Senior Living at Watkins, an assisted living center.

In her senior year, McGaw chose to take part in the student residence program at the facility, which is run by Winona Health.

It’s a new program that allows up to 10 students to reside in the Watkins Manor for $400 a month. That fee covers utilities, Wi-Fi, cable and three meals a day in the facility’s cafeteria. There’s one catch: The students have to volunteer 10 hours a month in the assisted living facility, which is connected to the mansion.

If they volunteer 20 hours a month, rent goes down to $200 a month.

“It’s a steal,” said McGaw, who moved in this August.

Ashley McGaw runs the bingo game at Senior Living at Watkins.
Ashley McGaw, a senior at Winona State University, runs the bingo game at Senior Living at Watkins.
Peter Cox | MPR News

McGaw works a summer job as a certified nursing assistant in Wisconsin. So, the arrangement is a perfect fit for her, she said.

"I was like, ‘This is the coolest idea ever.’ I always wish I could just sit down and hang out with residents and just talk and do life with them, instead of doing my job and trying to do life with them,” she said, talking about her summers working as a certified nursing assistant. “So, this is just like one of the coolest opportunities that just honestly fell into my lap and I'm so happy."

She’s not the only one.

"I think that's wonderful, so they can be close to us and we can have an association with them,” said Alan Thompson, who has lived at the assisted living facility for two years. “They learn about us; we learn about them because I think most of us as elders do not know enough about what confronts the younger generation."

There are 46 residents in the assisted living wing of the building. A squat building connects the facility to the mansion where the students live.

The mansion is filled with ornately carved woodwork, an early Steinway grand piano and large paintings in elaborate gold frames. The home, which was built in a Jacobethan — or English Renaissance Revival — style, was built between 1924 and 1927 for Paul Watkins, who ran the J.R. Watkins Company for several years.

The mansion was donated to the local Methodist church in the 1950s and became part of a senior living facility. For several years, older adults lived in the mansion. But, for a variety of reasons, the home shifted all those residents into the newer wing of the building.

Cheryl Krage, director of assisted living and hospice services at Winona Health, said the mansion isn't built for wheelchairs or walkers.

"Regulations for the elevator have made it a little more challenging,” she said. “That's where we had the opportunity to do something different."

McGaw, the student, lives in a spacious third-floor room with high ceilings, a large window with painted glass inserts and a giant fireplace framed by tiles.

Resident Nancy Neumann, a former nurse, said the students help the residents enjoy getting older.

"We are like grandparents to the young people and they are like our grandchildren, which is a joy,” she said.

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