ATLANTA — Immediately after entering the Wesley Woods senior living facility off Clifton Road on Thursday, Marietta resident Lillian Darden lit up, greeting residents with genuine excitement.

They seemed drawn to her — one resident recognized her with obvious delight after more than 20 years had passed; another, who she’d never met before, approached to ask how she might get the stain on her favorite sweater out, a problem Darden told her could be solved with some Shout stain remover and a little elbow grease. If the stain still didn’t come out, Darden told the woman, wear it anyway, if it’s her favorite.

Diane Vaughan is the newly appointed president of the nonprofit Foundation of Wesley Woods, which raises money for the 10 Wesley Woods senior living facilities across north Georgia. The facilities, which provide housing and services for older adults, are maintained by Wesley Woods Senior Living.

Vaughan said Darden’s contagious enthusiasm for seniors is the reason she came to Wesley Woods after a 30-year career in fundraising at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

“Lillian exudes passion for life, (and) her love for older adults is evident in everything she does,” Vaughan said.

Darden: My father was a visionary

Darden is well-known in Marietta as the wife of former U.S. Rep. Buddy Darden, D-Marietta, who represented the state’s 7th District from 1983 to 1994.

But Lillian Darden’s obvious passion for the well-being of the elderly residents at Wesley Woods is rooted in her upbringing and lifelong connection to the facility. Her father, Warren Candler Budd, founded the organization, which began as a ministry of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Budd was a Methodist minister, and Lillian Darden grew up in the church, heavily involved in the agendas of her father, who she described as a “visionary.” He began his ministry in Hardwick, Georgia, near a state hospital, where Lillian Darden said he developed a deep concern for “the plight of the elderly and for children.”

“They were sent to Milledgeville state hospital as senile or abandoned,” she said. “And so he began the quest for how to solve these problems.”

Lillian Darden said she grew up visiting elderly people in the various churches, and later at the facilities the Wesley Woods nonprofit foundation supports. She said her father saw a need for geriatric care and affordable housing long before those topics took center stage on national platforms.

Her father’s assignment in 1950 to Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church on the campus of Emory University, along with many other life events, she said, was a divine intervention. She said that assignment gave him the opportunity to partner with Emory, and in 1954, the North Georgia Conference approved Budd’s idea for the ministry, which led to the first Wesley Woods facility off Clifton Road.

“But he had to raise the money,” Lillian Darden said. “Another divine intervention: The Emory community — after he started raising the money — sold him this property for a dollar. It was a dump, a literal dump.”

The building wasn’t occupied until 1968, she said.

As Budd continued to relocate to churches around north Georgia and Atlanta, he continued spreading the word and raising money for expansion of the facilities. She said Budd worked tirelessly to raise money to support the organization’s work and its continued growth. The nonprofit now serves about 1,800 residents across 10 north Georgia locations.

“He mostly raised money on the golf course,” Lillian Darden said, laughing. “He was just good at golf, (and) he just convinced people ... He believed in his vision.”

Darden’s continued legacy

As she became more involved in school and later in her husband’s campaign for Congress, Lillian Darden said she couldn’t volunteer at Wesley Woods as often. But after Buddy Darden was no longer in Congress, Lillian Darden said she was on the foundation’s board and shortly after was asked to be president.

She served from 1995 to 2010, during which time, she said she tried to continue her father’s legacy.

“I started coming over here a lot. I loved it. I’d go to different places and I’d hit people up for money,” she laughed.

Lillian Darden said some gifts, like the $6 million donation from a church member in Newnan, showed how much her father’s ministry meant to the communities it served. That donation, she said, led to one of the most touching moments of her life. Shortly after her father suffered a stroke and began living at the Atlanta Wesley Woods facility in 1996, she visited him to share the news of a new facility’s groundbreaking in Newnan.

“I went to see him on Nov. 20, 1996. (His) last goal was to get a facility in Newnan, because of that seed money. I said, ‘We’re going down to break ground on the Newnan facility today,’” she said, adding that afternoon, hours after giving a thumbs-up to the news, he died. “It was divinely inspired.”

Lillian Darden credits her father, who she said never earned a dime from the ministry, and others with the success of the foundation’s community support. A southern lady such as herself shouldn’t brag about her own work, she said, adding that all she contributes is love for the residents.

“I think I bring the legacy of my father forward, and I love what I do. I care about the elderly, the least, the lost, the lonely (and) people that are disenfranchised,” she said, adding that her mother, Dorothy Budd, was equally as loving as her father. “I’m very fortunate to have the parents I had.”

Vaughan said Lillian Darden understates her contribution to the foundation.

She said Lillian Darden, when she was president and even after her retirement from the position, has tirelessly networked and spread the knowledge of the Wesley Woods communities throughout the region, just as her father had before her.

The genuine and unfailing love and care that both Lillian Darden and her father poured into the communities to ensure a sense of community and comfort for their residents make them the best place for elderly residents in need, Vaughan said.

Margaret Koehler, a resident of the Atlanta Wesley Woods facility, said she can feel that love. Koehler lived in east Cobb near the intersection of Sandy Plains and Wigley roads before moving to Wesley Woods about a year ago, and she said her piano, which sits just outside her room, is a testament to the lengths the organization will go to welcome its residents.

Koehler said when she donated her baby grand piano to the Atlanta facility, she thought it would sit in a lower-level lobby.

“I didn’t know at the time I’d be having the piano right here in my rotunda,” she said. “If you’ve once played the piano, it’s hard to live without.”

Koehler’s daughter, Ruthanne Brame, who visited with her daughter on Thursday from North Carolina added that she never worries whether her mother is being taken care of.

Mother’s Day offerings

Vaughan said the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church and the communities surrounding each of the Wesley Woods locations remain strong supporters of the Foundation of Wesley Woods.

Every Mother’s Day since 1976, the Methodist churches within the conference, as well as any other churches or local organizations that want to participate, collect an offering specifically for the foundation, she said.

“When I married, I joined Marietta First United Methodist, where Lillian goes to church. So I heard her every Mother’s Day in the pulpit talking about Wesley Woods,” she said, adding that the organization’s introduction to her life was also divinely inspired.

The proceeds from the Mother’s Day offerings, Vaughan said, support the foundation, as well as pay for wellness programming and the financial difference for individuals who need to move from independent to assisted living within the facilities. She said the offerings also pay for chaplains, who play a critical role in the lives of Wesley Woods residents.

Lillian Darden’s voice speaking each Mother’s Day to the importance of the Foundation of Wesley Woods in the communities it serves is fitting, Vaughan said, given her matriarchal role, which remains ingrained in the organization.

Vaughan said whether she’ll admit it or not, the lives of families across north Georgia have been changed by Lillian Darden and her father’s passion for those who needed them most.

“To everyone that knows about Wesley Woods, Lillian Darden is Wesley Woods,” Vaughan said. “There really is no more fundamental way to value older adults than to provide opportunities for them to live safe, purposeful lives where they can be engaged in community, and she believes that with her whole heart. Everything she did while she was here and since makes sure that continues.”

The Foundation of Wesley Woods supports communities with varying levels of elder care in Blairsville, Roswell, Atlanta, Athens, Augusta and Newnan. For more information, visit www.foundationofwesleywoods.org.

Follow Thomas Hartwell on Twitter at twitter.com/MDJThomas.

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