Inclusiveness is the main idea

Photo by David Coincé

When Eli Lewis returns home to the Rockville apartment he moved into a year ago, he walks past the cylindrical Soulfull Cafe connected to the building by a walkway. Inside, mosaics and artwork by residents line the lobby walls. Next to the elevator, a colorful sign reads “Main Street.” Inclusivity redefined.

For Lewis, who has Down syndrome, and his mother Mary Ann Dawdeit, that phrase sums up the spirit of Main Street, a 70-unit apartment building and community center that opened last August. A quarter of the accommodation is intended for people with various special needs. Three-quarters of them are “affordable,” with a range of rents for households earning 30 to 60 percent of the Montgomery County median income.

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Lewis, 30, says having friends in the building, a washer and dryer in his apartment, and an on-site gym are major pluses for living on Main Street. He lived alone for a few years in a traditional apartment community and now enjoys living in a community of disabled and non-disabled people. Her mom says that’s what makes Main Street different.

“All people with disabilities deserve a place where they feel at home and included. The other apartments were not aware of what this meant, ”explains Dawdeit,

And that’s exactly what Jillian Copeland hoped for when she first considered opening Main Street four years ago. Struggling with how her then 18-year-old son Nicolas, who has developmental disabilities and seizures, might be able to live independently, she spoke to dozens of families with young adult children with disabilities about the issues. options.

“What I found wasn’t great,” says Copeland, who founded Diener School in Bethesda a decade ago to help children facing social and educational challenges. “Adults with disabilities do not have inclusive housing options. There is a lack of continuing education opportunities and a lack of social connections with the neurotypical community. They have no place at the table.

Copeland says less than a quarter of adults with disabilities nationwide live independently because affordable housing choices are limited and there is little intentional inclusiveness. Although Main Street does not offer individual assistance to residents, they are encouraged to bring in caregivers if they require assistance with daily needs or to participate in activities.

Main Street residents also have the option to enroll in a community coaching program to connect, develop skills and have fun. Activities include preparing meals together, playing games, visiting local parks and restaurants, and talking about social skills. The group meets on Sundays and coaches check in with participants during the week when they are focusing on skills such as apartment cleaning, personal hygiene and community safety. The eight-week program costs $ 245 and financial assistance is available.

Copeland reports that Nicolas is thriving on Main Street. “I see him walking taller and with pride and feeling a sense of independence, a normalcy that he sees in his cousins ​​and friends and that he desperately desires. He managed to build a community for himself, ”she says.

Copeland and her husband Scott Copeland, director of RST Development, an affordable real estate developer, started the Main Street project in 2017. Funding comes from the state of Maryland in the form of a low income tax credit. income worth $ 15 million, as well as a $ 2 million grant from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Fundraising from individuals and foundations brought in an additional $ 5 million.

The building’s accessibility features include electronic doors, step-free entrances and audio notifications in the elevators. A handful of units have been built to meet the standards set out in the Americans with Disabilities Act, while the rest are ADA adaptable, with movable kitchen islands, low-pile rugs, and smartphone-controlled thermostats, among others. characteristics.

Interest in moving to Main Street has been huge, says Stacey Watson, director of community member experience.

“When the phone lines opened in March 2020 for people to express interest in the apartments, thousands upon thousands of people called,” Watson said. “We have a waiting list of several hundred pages. Even market-priced apartments with a waiting list.

This speaks to the lack of affordable housing options for many people, with or without disabilities, says Copeland. She’s consulted with communities across the country on creating similar communities, but Main Street “is the only place in the country that I know of with all the bells and whistles and programming,” she says.

Residents with disabilities can also apply to work part-time at the front desk and Soulfull Cafe, a partnership between Rockville’s Dawson Market and Main Street, which makes smoothies and sandwiches.

Sabria Still considers herself one of the lucky few to land an apartment. She lived in Prince George County, but after getting a job with Montgomery County Council, she feared she couldn’t afford to move to the county.

“I am extremely grateful that I can pay my rent and not have to choose between bills that I can afford during an economically unstable time,” Still said. She is also happy that she can walk to work and that Main Street is a few blocks from the Rockville subway station.

Main Street Connect, the on-site community center, is yet another perk, according to Still. “Main Street allowed me to interact with my neighbors and my passions from the comfort of my home,” she says.

“When COVID struck, disabled members of our community were the first to be put on leave or fired, the first to see their hours cut. There was nothing for them socially, ”says Watson. “None of the zooms [programs out there] were designed or created for people with disabilities or even in an inclusive way. Nothing has been thought of for them for accessibility. So we said we had to find something.

Main Street Connect launched last summer with a few Zoom programs per week and now offers 20 weekly programs, some virtual and some in person. The 10,000 square foot facility includes a fitness center, teaching and commercial kitchen, media room, and classroom.

However, a large number of attendees don’t even live in the apartments, joining online activities from as far away as Texas and Oregon. Unlimited access to the programs – try a Muscle on Main, exercise class, or deli masterclass – costs $ 75 per month. A monthly subscription option of $ 20 is also available, with members paying $ 5 to $ 15 for each class they choose. Financial assistance is available to help cover membership fees.

“We are always conscious of not watering things down, but also of not making them too complex so that they are not affordable or accessible. I think we’ve done a really good job of getting to the middle of the curve for the people we serve, ”says Watson.

“This inclusive programming is the ticket. It’s a place where people come together, ”adds Copeland. “Take the Muscle on Main class where a participant with special needs sees a neurotypical person come into class and knows they are both welcome. This is how you build community, not out of charity, but organically and out of kindness. “

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