September 21, 2018
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Dismayed by wait list for housing, Maine couple opens home for intellectually disabled

Deb Cram | Foster's Daily Democrat
Deb Cram | Foster's Daily Democrat
Debbie Dean, pictured, and her husband, Dennis, are opening A House for ME in Kittery. A House for ME is a nonprofit offering housing for those with intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorders in York County.
By Hadley Barndollar, Portsmouth Herald

KITTERY, Maine — In 2013, nearly 800 people were ahead of Dennis and Debbie Dean’s disabled daughter on the state’s wait list for housing.

“Something new has to happen and we hope we’ve landed on it,” Dennis said Wednesday while standing in the second floor bedroom of an 1860 home on Government Street, the parsonage of the Second Christian Congregational United Church of Christ.

The Kittery couple started A House For ME, a nonprofit opening the door to independence for those with intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorders in York County. In May, the organization secured its first home, when it signed a five-year lease on the Kittery house. Three women will live there together, beginning in July, including the Deans’ 38-year-old daughter. They still seek their other two tenants.

“Of course our first intention was with our daughter, but we really want to open more homes,” Debbie said. The houses will have volunteer support staff to assist the residents, and the organization is working with the University of New Hampshire to offer those opportunities to graduate students. The goal is to create “circles of support,” a “beehive” of community.

“When we decided it was time to start helping our daughter find somewhere to be safe for the rest of her life, we thought, and I think a lot of families think, that you call the state and say, ‘OK we’re ready now,’ and they say, ‘OK here’s some places you can choose from,’” Dennis said. “Well that’s not the case. What we found five, six years ago was a waiting list of 770 people ahead of her. And so we decided something different should happen, so we started this project and have pursued it.”

A House For ME has received its funding through grant writing and “a lot of amazing community fundraising,” Dennis said, noting support from the Kittery Lions Club, Kittery Rotary, Kiwanis Club of the Seacoast and the Congregational Church in Kittery Point.

“We’re really at the hatching stage,” said Mary Oplinger, treasurer and former CEO of Fair Tide. “The dream stage is done and now we’re hatching. This has been very exciting and the community has rallied around these most vulnerable people. Affordable housing for any demographic is so exciting when you can actually secure it.”

Tenants will pay 30 percent of their income in rent, and then contribute to household expenses. Dennis said responsibility is one of the things they’re trying to foster in the living environments.

“We want the women who live here, or people who live in any house we operate next, to be a real part of their community,” he said. “To be out and about and be involved in community activities. We want this house to be a beehive. We want young people in and out of here, older people, activities, functions, folks to come in and just sit and work with the three women who live here. Get involved with the activities of the church, walk down and get a smoothie, maybe hop in the car and go to Fort Foster. We want them busy. We don’t want them warehoused. We want them busy and involved.”

On Wednesday, as part of United Way of York County’s annual Day of Caring, employees from Portsmouth Naval Shipyard were on site to clean up the house, landscape and prepare for its incoming residents.

“I really feel honored to get to do this, it’s really nice to have that fellowship,” said Catherine Sullivan, a shipyard employee and 40-year Kittery resident.

Thirteen people now sit on the organization’s board, which Oplinger said also has a responsibility to advocate for affordable housing implementation in surrounding towns’ planning processes.

“Peace of mind means so much and that’s what we want for other parents, too,” Debbie said. “We have parents in their 70s call us and say they still have their adult children living with them because they have no place to go.”

Vice Chairwoman Sarah Chase, of South Berwick, said, “We truly just hope this can be a blueprint for other towns to create housing for these individuals.”

For more information, visit ahouseforme.org.

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