In between Sterling and Soldotna is a unique neighborhood made of individuals who face challenges living independently, but who still seek a place to call their own.
Last Friday, Hope Community Resources celebrated the completion of Phase Three of their Kenai Intentional Neighborhood — a community of people living with various developmental disabilities taking charge of their own lives. Bob Owens, vice president of the Board of Directors for Hope Community Resources, said they manage another intentional community ranch in Willow, so the idea wasn’t completely new to the organization.
“It’s intended to be a close-knit community of people with facilities that encourage and enable the community to mix and mingle and thrive together,” Owens said.
Phase Three involved the construction of a central clubhouse in the neighborhood, known by residents as “The Gathering Place.” On Friday, the residents, their families and Hope employees hosted an open house in the newly finished clubhouse, complete with food, drinks and music. Kelda Barstad is a program officer with the Alaska Mental Health Trust, which provided some of the funding for the neighborhood. She attended the open house on Friday as well.
“It’s fantastic,” Barstad said of the neighborhood. “It’s really an inspiration to see different options that people can choose for how they want to live their lives.”
The Kenai Intentional Neighborhood features six homes situated around a cul-de-sac off Forest Lane, each painted and designed differently to reflect the residents’ different preferences. The residents have a live-in support professional from Hope 24 hours a day to help them when they need it, but each person in the neighborhood has a substantial degree of autonomy when it comes to making decisions about their lives and their community.
When the clubhouse was completed, for example, the residents got together to establish rules for maintaining it and created a rotating schedule that determines which house is responsible for cleaning at the end of every night.
Kathy Fitzgerald is the mother of one of the residents, Kara Fitzgerald, and said that the neighborhood has been important in building and maintaining her daughter’s social connections without having to rely on her caretaker for a social life.
“No matter how wonderful staff is, eventually they leave,” Fitzgerald said. “And when they leave, all of her social connection leaves, and here is my daughter who’s just devastated because her whole world has left and she has to start all over.”
Fitzgerald’s daughter is autistic and nonverbal, so making friends and building new relationships can be difficult for Kara. Living in the neighborhood for the past year has changed that.
“Now when they (staff) leave it’s not going to be the end of the world for her, because her neighbors are still gonna be here. Her life goes on,” Fitzgerald said. “She’s sad that somebody has left, but her life goes on.”
Connor Aaronson is another resident of the Intentional Neighborhood, and he has a passion for music. Aaronson played the role of DJ during the open house on Friday. In his spare time he records a podcast called “The Heart and Soul of Pop,” during which he discusses the history and meaning behind his favorite pop songs.
Aaronson originally wanted to be on the radio, but when he learned that all the shifts at KSRM were already full, he decided to record the show himself. For the first episode, he did a deep dive on Janet Jackson’s hit 1997 song “Together Again.” That was last year, and Aaronson said that now he’s gearing up for season 2 with a full slate of 32 episodes. Aaronson records the podcast by himself, but occasionally he does have some fictional characters fill in for him on the show, with appearances made by Barbie, Annie the Orphan and Lil from “The Rugrats.”
“When it came to a particular kind of song that related to those fictional characters, that’s when I kind of had the big idea,” Aaronson said. “And they ended up being so funny to my listeners that they became popular.”
Mallory Hamilton drove down from Anchorage to celebrate the open house with her daughter, Harley. Hamilton said that she had already known about intentional neighborhoods like this one after seeing examples around the country and always knew it was the life she wanted for her daughter.
“It was really a dream come true for me and my husband,” Hamilton said. “I’m secure in knowing that she has a home for the rest of her life, and it’s in a community where people will be watching out for each other.”
Hamilton explained that her daughter has a dual diagnosis and deals with both autism and Down syndrome, but it’s the autism that presents her with the most challenges.
“She struggles with social things, has a lot of sensory issues … but since she’s been here, she’s grown so much,” Hamilton said. “She’s become more and more independent, and she makes me proud every day.”
Hamilton also talked about how having her daughter involved from the beginning of the project made Harley feel at home in her new environment.
“We did all of the furniture shopping together,” Hamilton said. “We picked out fabrics and I made all of her curtains and her bedding, we up-cycled furniture, so she’s really invested. It’s her home and she knows it.”
Resident Amber Becker is Kara Fitzgerald’s roommate, and she said that she enjoys living there because the neighborhood is surrounded by nature. An appreciation of wildlife and the natural world is part of what drew each resident to the community.
“Half the time it’s cold and dusty and dreary, and sometimes it’s wild and wacky and full of wildlife,” Becker said. “Especially the turkeys when they come and bang on your windows or try to get in the house.”
Becker was living with her parents before she moved here, and one complaint she had about living there was that it was always noisy. Here the neighborhood is much quieter.
“It’s totally different. It’s nice, kinda quiet,” she said. “I like the quiet but I like the community better. We have a lot of fun together, like pranks once in a while.”
Becker shot a playful look at her neighbor Patrick Gifford at the mention of pranks, and it was clear by his reaction that Gifford was one of the main practical jokers of the group.
Gifford helps coach boys basketball in Kenai and is a frequent hunter, and during the open house in the new Gathering Place he was bragging about the moose he had shot last year.