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Our Neighbor, Inc. opens 2 more homes to help the disabled find a means of independent living
Aaron Allen, left, and Armando Becerra walk down the handicap ramp in front of one of the new Our Neighbor houses in Gainesville. The nonprofit for the disabled has brought the total number of independent living houses to five. - photo by Tom Reed

Our Neighbor, Inc.

To donate any furniture items, particularly coaches, chairs, lamps, end tables and decorative items to help furnish new residences, call 770-535-1000 or email Our Neighbor will pick up the items and provide a tax deductible receipt.

The group’s Next Chapter Bookstore is located at 118 Main St., Gainesville. It is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays.

When you’re sitting at home and feel a hunger pang in your stomach, chances are you head to the kitchen, grab a snack and return to your seat. No big deal if you’re able-bodied.

But for people with disabilities, such a routine task can be a serious obstacle, one of many reasons many believe they can never live on their own without assistance.

That’s where Our Neighbor, Inc., comes in. For the last seven years, the nonprofit has been providing housing, job training and life skills to young adults with disabilities to help them realize their maximum level of independence.

This month, they’re adding two new homes to their housing network, which brings the total to five. Over the last year, the group has expanded its client base from 10 to 14 young adults with disabilities.

"There’s such a need for housing for young adults with disabilities. Typically, residents seek us out, but we also get referrals from transition coaches and social workers," said Mary Margaret Calvert, Our Neighbor executive director.

"There’s not a lot of what we have to offer available in the community."

Because of that, the group has a standing waiting list. The length of time that a potential resident is on the list depends on a number of variables, including matching residents with housemates who have compatible personalities and disabilities.

"We don’t turn anyone away based on their inability to pay," said Jackie Walters, Our Neighbor marketing director. "A lot of the residents receive Social Security (benefits), but that doesn’t fund all of the costs, so as a nonprofit we fund raise to make up the difference of what they can afford," Calvert added.

The group also generates income through The Next Chapter Bookstore inside the Main Street Market in downtown Gainesville. It also helps residents learn life skills.

"We have seven employees. In addition to helping customers, part of their job is to price books as they come in," said D’ete Sewell, who runs the store.

"We’ve also taught them how to put books online to sell through Amazon. When an (online) order comes in, they get them ready to ship out.

"The book store is really rocking. The community has just been phenomenal. And we’re able to price things reasonably because it all has been given to us."

Although it costs Our Neighbor around $1,200 each month to house, feed and support residents, the service they’re providing is priceless.

With the help of former residential housing manager Aaron Allen, the residents are able to challenge their own ideas of "can’t do’s."

"It’s a huge learning curve," said Allen, who has been promoted to programs director.

"Being the live-in house manager means being available to assist with any needs the residents have, as well as teaching, encouraging and prompting them to realize that they can do more for themselves than they think.

"We don’t want them to be any less than they can be."

Part of helping residents reach their full potential means showing them how to complete a task and sticking with them until they’ve mastered it.

"There was this one resident who I had this ongoing kind of joke with," Allen said.

"Anytime he would do something for himself that he previously wouldn’t do, he’d look at me and say, ‘Less and less.’ Meaning, he needs me less and less.

"That was the goal, be needed less, but for them to know we’re right there if they did need us."

To help residents grow doesn’t mean sticking to a regimented plan that outlines daily or weekly tasks that must be completed. Instead, the residents and their caregivers use daily tasks like doing laundry and preparing a meal as opportunities for growth.

"Our vision is to better somebody’s life through sharing life," said Armando Becerra, the new residential housing manager.

"Our goal is to share life and to see where that takes us turn by turn, not to try and plan every turn."

"We usually get in trouble if we try to plan out every single step," Allen said.

"We have a rough framework and then we just allow life to take us wherever.

"That’s worked pretty well for us."

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