Recognizing people who are transformative, just later in life

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Lutheran pastor Violet Little conducts a church service "without walls" for Ben Franklin Parkway's homeless, which prompted her be awarded the Purpose Prize.

Lutheran Pastor Violet Little held her cup up, as part of the Mass, to her congregants on the streets.

Little's outdoor ministry at Logan Square is attended by the homeless and society's neglected. The twice-a-month church service is followed by coffee hour in the park, hosted by visiting congregations.

She left behind her traditional congregation of 14 years to create this "church without walls," also called the Welcome Church.

Retiring from her old congregation to found the new one "happened because of everything in my life leading up to it," says Little, 64. "It was exactly the right time."

Today, she is looking for volunteers to help her Philadelphia ministry, especially after Mayor Kenney in July lifted the ban on group feeding in city parks.

In 2010, she became pastor of the Welcome Church, a recognized "congregation in development" of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is among the largest Christian denominations in the United States.

In 2012, Little and faith-based groups became plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the city's decision to ban the public sharing of food on Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

In 2013, she was recognized for her work with the $25,000 Purpose Prize, which allows seniors to "find purpose in their life."

Originally conceived by Encore.org, the prize this year will be taken over and administered by AARP, which is lowering the eligibility age from 60 to 50.

Purpose Prize winners are recognized for transforming themselves, their communities, and the lives of others. Their stories, including Little's, can be found at www.encore.org/prize.

"The Purpose Prize reflects a broader trend, and a new body of research showing that for many people, later in life is their most creative period," said Encore.org founder Marc Freedman.

"The Purpose Prize also has strong Philly ties," he said. One of the original funders was the Montgomery County-based John Templeton Foundation, which donated $5 million to incubate Encore.org. One of the first winners was former Mayor W. Wilson Goode.

Encore.org has awarded several $25,000 prizes and one $100,000 prize annually for seniors who are social innovators or helping solve the problems of society.

"It's the opposite of a lifetime-achievement award - it's an investment in what someone's going to do next," Freedman said.

Genius sometimes takes a long time to manifest.

"Even now, it's blasphemous to say older people are innovators and entrepreneurs. We tend to think only young people are creative. But often you don't do your best work until later."

AARP lowered the age for the Purpose Prize "because we're all about 50-plus, it's consistent with everything we do," said Kevin J. Donnellan, AARP's executive vice president and chief of staff in Washington. "We're not changing the name, the spirit or the mission of the prize. These are people who are innovative, creative in the second half of life, doing new and great things."

Lily Yeh, a Philadelphia artist, said the Purpose Prize "provides recognition to the importance of people's potential and contributions in [their] second careers."

Known as "the Barefoot Artist," Yeh was invited to be an Encore Fellow for her work bringing art installations to impoverished areas, and for helping survivors of war and other traumatic experiences cope with personal art projects.

Little said of the prize, "In addition to the recognition that folks in their second stage of life have much to give, I think the most valuable aspect of the Encore movement is not so much what it offers seniors, but what it offers society as a whole."

"It is forming a community where folks in their 60s, 70s, and 80s are seen with new eyes - a world where the gifts of older men and women might be received," she added.

The prize "also bridges the generational gap in a way that is not patronizing, but offers a sense of mutual giving, receiving, and learning," she said. "It might be better to give than to receive. But I think it is much more difficult to be receivers - to be open to admitting our need of one another and to share power."

"Encore helps to create a world where power means 'ability,' as it does in New Testament Greek, and not 'power over,' " she said.

For more information about the Welcome Church, go to www.thewelcomechurch.org.

earvedlund@phillynews.com

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@erinarvedlund