On a chilly Friday evening, Amy Papinchak kneels on the floor and plays with a stuffed puppy she received as a gift, coaxing her furry cat to take an interest in the toy. Later, she asks her parents permission to meet a friend at Ben & Jerrys.
Amy is 22. At age 2, she was diagnosed with Williams Syndrome, a genetic condition characterized by developmental delays and learning disabilities.
For 20 years, Joanne and Dennis Papinchak worried what would happen when they could no longer care for their affectionate and highly verbal daughter. Now in their late 50s, the couple realized their future would be governed by her needs and with declining government resources and no extended family in North Carolina, they felt increasingly vulnerable and isolated.
Help came as an answer to prayer, when an acquaintance sent out an email to a group of parents and caregivers of developmentally disabled people with the provocative subject line: What if?
Traci Hoover, who agonized about her son Johns future, invited more than a dozen Durham families to dream aloud with a question: What if we considered actually LIVING together in community?
That dream is now taking shape in the heart of downtown Durham, where a community for families supporting developmentally disabled people is rising from construction dust and old bricks on two city blocks.
Over the past six months, nine families, including the Papinchaks and the Hoovers, have moved into the first of 14 two-story brick buildings refurbished into modern homes. The North Street community is the only urban neighborhood in North Carolina and possibly in the U.S. set aside for families with developmentally disabled individuals as well as able-bodied families willing to assist them. Though it may take another two years to be fully occupied, the project already has generated lots of excitement.
Duke Divinity School recently partnered with the community to refurbish one of the buildings for graduate students who want to spend a year living alongside people with developmental disabilities. Plans are in the works to develop another building for use as a transitional home for juvenile offenders re-entering society.
Joanne Papinchak said she keeps pinching herself to make sure shes not imagining her new surroundings.
We have always wanted a community like this where we could live together and support each other, she said. We feel like this is Gods plan.
The idea for the North Street community is grounded in a theological conviction that God loves everyone equally, both the able-bodied and those with disabilities.That simple notion was the impetus behind the Reality Center, an after-school ministry started in 2008 across from Durham School of the Arts by Jeff and Susan McSwain.
We wanted to come alongside those who were typically marginalized and let them know every single person belongs to God and is loved by God, said Jeff McSwain, an evangelical Christian with an advanced degree in theology.
At the Reality Center, people with disabilities receive unconditional love from staff and volunteers, who encourage them to form friendships, play games and eat meals together. Many Durham families became fans.
Traci and Don Hoover, whose son, John, 19, has cerebral palsy, were among them.
By the time Traci Hoover held a What if? session at the Reality Center, Don was scouring Durham neighborhoods for clusters of homes where families with disabled members could gather in some type of living arrangement. Though he was open to all possibilities, he especially wanted a neighborhood where disabled people might find jobs, walk to the park or hop on a bus.
Like parents of all disabled children, the Hoovers knew life would get challenging as their son got older. When a disabled person turns 21, he or she is no longer eligible for free public schooling or some city-sponsored services such as summer camps, among others. And federal government services have slowed to a trickle.The Hoovers ruled out group homes for their son, fearing they would rob John of the ability to make his own decisions, limit his intellectual growth and potentially subject him to unprofessional caregivers.
Buying him a house wasnt a solution, either, since John needs help with basic skills, such as preparing hot meals, shopping for groceries and managing his money.
Their search for an alternative gave rise to the idea of a community where able and disabled can support one another.
John wants to contribute, Don Hoover said. We wanted to provide him a place where he could thrive.
Finding the buildings
Don Hoover was lucky. Within months of that What if meeting, a friend pointed out a collection of red brick four-plexes that had long been boarded up on the edge of Durhams up-and-coming warehouse district, where microbreweries, nightclubs and yoga studios were popping up.
Henry H. Scherich, president of Measurement Inc., a downtown company that specializes in educational testing, had just bought the buildings. Hoover knew Scherich from Blacknall Presbyterian Church, where both worship. The two also belonged to the Lions Club.
Scherich was willing to sell the properties, but Hoover, a local veterinarian, wasnt in a position to buy. The project needed a developer.
Drew Howell, a champion of the Reality Center, filled that void. Howell and a partner, Mark Moshier, bought the buildings in 2011 and began transforming them into modern townhouses and apartments. When completed in spring 2014, the community is expected to house more than two dozen families, couples and individuals.
We want to provide a sense of community where families can lean on each other much like older neighborhoods were a generation ago, Howell said.
There are no faith requirements to live in the community. But there are two restrictive covenants.
Those buying or renting a home must have a family member with disabilities or be willing to support the community in an active way. To prevent real estate flipping in a rebounding market, homeowners must sign a deed tying the value of their homes to a market formula for the larger Durham region. The neighborhood association retains the right of first refusal on all properties.
Margot Starbuck, Peter Hausmann and their three children are among the families without developmental disabilities to move in. The couple, Princeton Theological Seminary graduates, were drawn to North Street because they felt God calling them to live in a community where people on the margins can be brought into the center.
The couple isnt sure what that will look like. They expect to help residents with rides to the grocery store or the doctors office. They may host movie nights at their home, even sleepovers.
I imagine our role as a supportive one, Starbuck said.
We will learn hospitality and sharing in ways we wouldnt if were living in a neighborhood where your garage door goes up, your car goes in and youre sealed off. Were not sealed off anymore.
So far, the North Street community is a work in progress. With less than a third of the units occupied, it remains a vision but one with promise.
The Hoovers new home has an apartment for their son, John. He has a separate front entrance and an inside door that connects to the larger house. Although he eats dinner with his parents and six siblings, he has his own kitchenette where he can prepare breakfast, his own bathroom, his own washer and dryer.
In time, John might move into an apartment in another corner of the community, perhaps to Friendship House, where a small group of disabled adults and Duke Divinity School members will begin living together in August. Or he might move into an apartment of his own.
A few units will allow adults with disabilities to rent their own apartments.
In the meantime, John volunteers five afternoons a week at the YMCA, where he wipes off exercise equipment, folds towels and gives out keys to lockers.
Amy Papinchak, the neighborhoods social butterfly, has already knocked on several of her neighbors doors. She has walked up to Kings Sandwich Shop on Foster Street and made friends with the manager.
She has also found work. Once or twice a week she helps fill soda and popcorn orders from behind the concession stand at the Carolina Theatre, where she makes minimum wage.
The best thing about the North Street community, she said, is that she has options.
At the other place, I was surrounded by nothing, she said, referring to her former home in North Durham. Here I have freedom.
Yonat Shimron is a former News & Observer reporter who covered faith and ethics.