From thoughts of selling to a fourth Anita’s Gardens

Owners who were contemplating retirement will build assisted living facility in Saukville with their son at the helm

ANITA’S GARDENS ASSISTED LIVING, which has facilities in Port Washington and Grafton and is expanding into Saukville and Brookfield, was named after Anita Benavides, whose portrait was held by the family members who dedicate the business to providing the same care to residents as she did to her family. They include (from left) Kathleen Mahoney Benavides, Nick Benavides and Bridgette Benavides. Kathleen and Bridgette opened the assisted living facility in what used to be the rectory for St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Port. Photos by Sam Arendt


Ozaukee Press staff

Just a year or so ago, Bridgette Benavides and Kathleen Mahoney Benavides were contemplating the sale of Anita’s Gardens assisted living facilities in Port Washington and Grafton.

They were nearing retirement age and burned out after operating the business for more than a dozen years and living through the pandemic — not to mention the fact that three of Benavides’ relatives had died in the previous two years.

“We cried a lot during Covid,” Benavides said.

But then their son Nick, who has a degree in health care administration from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and has been working at Anita’s Gardens formally and informally since he was a child, stepped forward and agreed to take the reins of the business.

“He (Nick) said, ‘I can’t see you handing it over to someone else,’” Bridgette said.

Nick is the director of operations, while Bridgette and Kathleen will continue as consultants. The company plans to hire an executive administrator to help guide it as it expands.

In addition to the Port and Grafton facilities, they expect to break ground on a 36-bed assisted living home in Saukville’s Northern Gateway development by the end of 2023 and are planning for a 64-unit assisted living facility in Brookfield.

Anita’s Gardens, which currently has about 44 employees, will have more than 100 by the time the expansion is completed.

In deciding to move ahead, the family is building on a legacy forged by Benavides’ mother Anita, who the business is named after.

Anita Benavides, Bridgette’s mother, raised 10 children while working full-time as a caregiver in a nursing home.

“It was part of our culture to take care of our elders,” Bridgette said. “I was raised to take care of my elders.”

But initially, she worked in manufacturing, starting as a janitor but working her way up to become the human resources manager.

But caring for others was her calling, and she eventually went to work for a facility in Waukesha. After seeing how it was run, she said, “I  figured I could do it differently.”

Joining her on the journey was Kathleen, who worked in the geriatric program at Froedtert Hospital.

“I picked up a great deal of on-the-job training,” she said.

Using their savings and $10,000 Anita had left Benavides, they set out to open their own assisted living facility.

They heard about the former rectory at St. Mary’s Church in Port, which was being used as an assisted living facility, and approached the parish. The previous tenant gave up their lease, but the women hesitated. The building required a great deal of work, and a consultant told them it wasn’t a project they should take on.

They initially passed on the building, but about three months later the parish reached out and said they were willing to finance some of the necessary changes.

“It was awesome,” Bridgette said.

When they decided to take one last look at the property with family members before making their decision, there were two signs that this was the right place, she added. They found a tablecloth in the building that was a replica of one her mother Anita owned but they couldn’t find after her death, and a small charm depicting the letter A.

They had been debating the name of their facility, and seeing the charm sealed the deal on the building and name, Bridgette said.

They opened the 19-bed Anita’s Gardens on March 17, 2007, and grew the business largely by word of mouth.

“We slowly but surely built up the business,” Kathleen said. “It was a real challenge for us. We were here every day to make sure we were providing excellence.”

By 2014, they were so successful a business associate constructed Anita’s Gardens in Grafton, a 24-bed assisted living facility, for them.

Their success, they said, comes largely on the fact they believe in quality care for their residents and hiring quality staff members.

“Obviously we want to hire the best people we can,” Kathleen said.

“We don’t just want a warm body,” Bridgette added.

To help in attracting good employees, they work to treat them well and pay them a good wage.

“Because of Anita, I want to be the best-paying assisted living,” Bridgette said. “Some of this should be given back to the employees.”

They and the staff treat their residents like family, they said.

“You get so much when you’re with a resident,” Kathleen said. “The counseling and the moment you have (with residents) really fuel your passion to be a caregiver.”

But it wasn’t always easy, they said.

“It was really challenging,” Kathleen said. “You had to be very inventive and frugal to be able to serve the elderly population.”

When they opened, they recalled, they were told not to accept Medicaid patients because the reimbursement was too low.

“Why should only private pay people get quality care?” Bridgette asked, noting they and other senior care facilities are working to increase the reimbursement rate.

While they have a passion for the business, they found their energy level diminishing — especially as the pandemic continued.

They began to consider selling the business, and even received several offers from other providers to buy it.

“We sat down as a family and we had to see if we really wanted to sell it,” Bridgette said.

“It’s hard, especially when it has the Anita’s name,” Kathleen added. “Do you sell that name? Do you give up control of what you built up?”

Ultimately, Bridgette said, it was Nick who convinced them not to sell.

“Bridgette and I, all our experience has been through on-the-job training,” Kathleen said. “He brings an entirely different thought process than we have. He’s given us a depth of knowledge we didn’t necessarily possess.”

Nick said he prefers working in a family-run business to working for a large chain of senior care facilities where profit is what matters.

“It feels good to run your own business where you can make your own judgments about what’s important,” he said. “We want to control our own little corner to ensure everyone is taken care of whether they’re living or working here.

“Caring for someone — money can’t touch that.”



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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