How NeighborWorks Members Make Home Accessible

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Providing quality housing for people with disabilities is just one way members of the NeighborWorks America network impact their communities.  To recognize the July 26th  anniversary of the enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against all individuals with disabilities, we’re sharing the stories of three organizations that provide community support and services alongside affordable housing.

Dwelling Place (Grand Rapids, MI)

Forty-one years ago, churches and community organizations in Grand Rapids, MI worked together to form Dwelling Place in an effort to house people displaced by the 1970s de-institutionalization of mental health services. That founding mission is at the core of the work Dwelling Place of Grand Rapids continues to this day by creating quality affordable housing specifically for people with disabilities. More than 500 permanent supporting apartments are designed for flexibility, so they can adapt to the unique needs of each resident. Dwelling Place also provides on-site coordinators who connect residents with the resources they need to reach or maintain a high quality of life, especially during critical life transitions.

“We coordinate with disability advocate groups to provide additional expertise when working directly with residents, to plan inclusive events and experiences to serve persons of all abilities and those who are disabled,” said Jenn Schaub, Dwelling Place’s Director of Community Building & Engagement.

They maintain a Memorandum of Understanding with Disability Advocates of Kent County on several Permanent Supportive Housing properties. Dwelling Place is committed to taking referrals for qualified residents who need accessibility services. They also provide training for Community Building and Engagement staff, interns and AmeriCorps team members who design events and materials for residents to ensure events are accessible. 

In addition, before and during the pandemic, they have offered:

  • Mental Health First Aid awareness and training for all staff members and several residents in a core neighborhood.
  • Outreach by the Grand Valley State University’s Nursing Program Occupational Therapists to provide direct aid and support for residents who are disabled.
  • Training for curators creating and hanging exhibitions in Dwelling Place’s 106 Gallery space through a video created with DisArts, a local disability artist advocacy group.
  • Collaboration  with Artists creating Together – an arts-based program that focuses on working alongside persons who are disabled to provide onsite programs for residents and neighborhood-level engagement programs.
  • 17 community gardens that include raised or standing planting beds to accommodate persons with mobility limitations or persons in wheelchairs.
  • Oversight of program vendors to ensure that they specifically work with persons with disabilities using broad and intentional teaching methods.

“We work to ensure we are creating clear opportunities for all persons to know they are invited and included,” said Schaub.

Click here to watch a video featuring James Fruge, longtime Dwelling Place resident.

Pathfinder Services (Huntington, IN)

Pathfinder Services was founded in 1966 to provide education opportunities for children with developmental disabilities, who were essentially shut out of schools and much of society. Today Pathfinder Services of Huntington, IN supports residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities by developing safe, affordable, and accessible housing throughout north-central Indiana. Their mission is to strengthen communities by enabling people with disabilities or economic challenges to achieve autonomy, inclusion, and stability. While this mission includes two distinct populations, the organization is diligent about supporting both. Their focus is on creating person-centered disability support and asset-building services.

“People have choices and it is our role to provide them with the best information possible so that they can make the choices that suit them and their circumstances,” said Danielle Tips, Pathfinder Services’ President and Chief Executive Officer.

Pathfinder Services has 17 four-bedroom rental homes and 13 eight-bedroom group homes. Both types of homes offer 24-hour support and case coordination to assist residents in locating additional services.

A portfolio of other services help connect residents with opportunities in the community. Community integration offers transportation and companionship to those who want to take part in local events. Day service programs offer recreational activities that build social skills, help individuals work toward their goals, and create memorable experiences. For those seeking jobs, employment support matches their skills to job roles and continually assists both the  individual and the employer.

Pathfinder Services resident Trena Gamble was so inspired by a visiting artist, she started making her own jewelry, which has been commissioned by a local town member.

“Involving people in the community and everything it has to offer helps them become acquainted with others who have similar interests that they may not otherwise have the opportunity to meet,” said Carrie Blackham, Chief Community Impact Officer. “The opposite is also true. We are introducing neighbors who happen to have developmental disabilities to each other which builds natural supports. This helps to build a more inclusive and healthier community.”

For example, Pathfinder Services partnered with a private developer, the City of Huntington, and Huntington University to develop the Huntington Arts and Entrepreneurial Center. The arts center provides workshops for budding and established artists in ceramics, fine arts, and the culinary arts, to teach them how to become self-supporting artists. Every program is inclusive to people of all ages and abilities.

In one success story, Katrina Mitten, an established artist with work displayed in the Smithsonian, conducted a series of beading workshops at the Center. A Pathfinder resident with intellectual disabilities attended the workshops, fell in love with the intricacies and detailed work of beading, and has been commissioned to produce several pieces for a town resident who recognized her talent.

Penquis (Maine)

As part of its mission to help all people to be safe, healthy, connected and financially secure, Penquis operates Charlotte White Support Services. The department currently supports 165 people with disabilities through residential services, supported living services, and community supports. The goal is to help individuals maximize their independence and  make decisions that align with their personal values and goals.

“Penquis’ vision of a poverty-free Maine, where people lead healthy, full lives and are safe, connected and financially secure, is at the core of our disability supports programs,” said Aimee Kerrigan, Director of Charlotte White Support Services, Penquis. “Our services enable individuals with disabilities to meet their needs, pursue their goals, be engaged members of the community and contribute to our society’s rich social fabric. They have strong friendships and relationships with neighbors, local businesses and others within the community.

“Our staff are amazing and inspiring. They have not wavered in their support or high quality of services during the entire pandemic. They have shown up every day with a smile on their face, committed to doing great work. During uncertain, scary, times, they brought peace, safety and security,” Kerrigan said.

Additional programs that Penquis provides include:

  • Helping children with special needs thrive through Early Head Start and Head Start services
  • Enabling people of all ages to access healthcare and other services through ADA transportation
  • Supporting independence through home modification and development.

Many individuals with disabilities who are living with a limited income, also receive assistance through its home heating and utilities programs which ease costs.

Artists Mary and Doris proudly sharing their artwork

Penquis also has a client art program that produces annual calendars and original prints for sale. Its artists come together to paint works of art using different designs and techniques during instructor-led art classes. Some of their works are chosen for an annual art calendar. Artists are paid for the use of their artwork and the calendars are sold to supporters. Proceeds of the art sales go toward purchasing and replenishing art supplies. Penquis also highlights an artist of the month on its Facebook page and often showcases artwork at events and on its own holiday and note cards.

Athletes Taryn and Sean at the Special Olympics Summer Games

Penquis works closely with other organizations to support inclusion, opportunities for individual fulfillment, and community enrichment. On a typical year, around 35 of the individuals they serve compete in the Summer and Winter Special Olympics.

“They look forward to it every year and practice for it year-round. The opening parade often brings tears to spectators’ eyes as the athletes gather with excitement and a strong sense of camaraderie that can be felt by all who attend,” Kerrigan said.

The local town’s business community sponsors Penquis’ athletes, defraying the costs of event fees and making it possible for them to compete each year.

Supporting Communities

Each organization in the NeighborWorks America network adapts their institutional history and experience to provide what their communities need now. Organizations that focus on supporting people with disabilities—with accessible homes and apartments, with connections to education and jobs and the arts and their wider communities—have seen and helped cause a change in how disabled people are accepted and treated.

Since the passage of the ADA, the movement has focused on treating disabled people fairly. Judith Heumann, one of the founders of the disability rights movement that resulted in the passage of the ADA, said it clearly: “Part of the problem is that we tend to think that equality is about treating everyone the same, when it’s not. It’s about fairness. It’s about equity of access.”

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