For the tenants of a four plex in Elmira, their apartments are far more than just a place to call home. The apartments represent choice, independence and many other opportunities they may not have had otherwise.
Brenda Fisher, Mark Allison, Joel Martin, Janine Haid, Meera Bavanandan and Sarah Bryson all live in the building, affectionately nicknamed Snow Goose.
The apartment building was a partnership that began in 2010 between Elmira Development Support Corporation, Elmira District Community Living, Waterloo Region Housing Authority, and Renison College at the University of Waterloo.
The idea behind the Elmira Developmental Support Corporation was to create affordable housing for people who have an intellectual disability.
Donna Haid is the President of Elmira District Community Living and sits on the Elmira Development Support Corporation’s Board of Directors. She says the corporation was sparked by the pursuit to find alternatives to group homes for people who have an intellectual disability.
“The tenants wanted to live in an environment that was of their own making,” added Donna Haid.
“It’s independence for everyone. People choose to be social or enjoy the privacy of their home. It’s a very good way to prevent loneliness that people with disabilities experience. The isolation and loneliness are alleviated.”
Janine wanted to move out of her parents’ home and live independently, so she could “be with her friends, cook, do laundry, anything that I want.”
Joel plays “baseball as part of Special Olympics on Thursday nights,” an interest he shares with his roommate, Mark.
Snow Goose is comprised of two one-bedroom units and two two-bedroom apartments.
The properties owned by the corporation, including Snow Goose, are self-sustaining, and do not require government funding for their operation. The cost of the building was approximately $1 million, which included the construction, land and amenities. Revenues from other rental properties and private donations were used to finance Snow Goose’s construction and the building is mortgage free.
The corporation provides supports to the tenants by making scholarships available to students in a comparable area of study in exchange for being a good neighbour.
“The students live in their apartment rent free. They pay for their tuition, books, fuel and the mileage on their vehicle,” said Donna.
Two of the tenants have paid supports, in addition to the assistance they receive from their neighbours. Sarah is taking Social Development Studies at Renison College, and the opportunity to live at Snow Goose means a lot to her.
“The Elmira Developmental Support Corporation is very interested in creating ambassadors for this field, and giving us the opportunity to have experiential learning and to be hands on in this field,” said Sarah Bryson.
“It also allows us to have a greater understanding of the struggles that people with intellectual or developmental disabilities face when trying to find affordable housing that allows them to optimize their independence.”
The interview process in selecting neighbours involves a committee made up of representatives from the corporation, tenants and parents. Selections are made after the final interviews.
Meera is also taking Social Development Studies at Renison College, and she feels she has a strong connection to everyone that lives at Snow Goose.
“We are not obligated to spend a certain amount of time with the tenants. They are our friends, and it is just as I would spend time with any of my other friends. If we are too busy with school or work, they’re very understanding of that and we are just as understanding if they would rather spend the evening alone rather than having a movie night together.”
Because the neighbours are not paid support staff, Bryson believes a much more organic relationship has taken shape at Snow Goose.
“We have boundaries that you would expect from anybody that’s living in an apartment building together, but aren’t restricted by what we can do, what we can say because we are not a staff. We are simply a friend who is there to perhaps spend some time baking cookies or watching movies, so the relationship there is very reciprocal and natural. It’s great for the students and our neighbours there.”
Woodworking projects are some of the activities that the tenants of Snow Goose undertake together regularly.
“We sit around the table and we make different pieces out of wood, ranging from wooden spoons to pizza rollers to coasters,” said Ray Haid, Janine’s dad.
The group recently worked on a project to commemorate Canada’s 150th birthday. They made a sculpture out of the many pieces of discarded wood from previous projects.
“On the sculpture, there’s 150 different pieces of wood, and Sarah and Meera went on the computer and they sourced out an important date for every year since Confederation. We then printed them on the wood, burned them, and then we glued them all on to make the sculpture.”
Since its unveiling at Snow Goose, the sculpture has been on display in the offices of MPP Michael Harris and MP Harold Albrecht, and it continues to be displayed elsewhere in the community, a month at a time.
The relationships established through Snow Goose are real.
To date, all six graduates of the scholarship program offered by the corporation have continued to keep in touch with the tenants, including phone calls, visits to Snow Goose, and invitations to weddings – meaningful and worthwhile opportunities like any of us would experience when we establish and nurture valued relationships.
Ron Laroche, Community Living Ontario