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Hope House means a home on this island

George Cruz (left) and Lorraine Ekholm in the living room.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
George Cruz (left) and Lorraine Ekholm in the living room.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

In her nine years as a para-educator at Bainbridge High School, Lorraine Ekholm had seen many developmentally disabled students complete their high school careers in a caring, supportive environment that fostered personal, social and academic success.

Absent from these measures toward independent living after high school, however, was an actual place to live.

“I was seeing a lot of our students graduate... and there really wasn’t any place for them to go,” Ekholm said. “Parents were given that choice of having them live with them, and not having them experience that rite of passage, or moving to another group home (off island).”

So in 2005 Ekholm and her husband, Steve, purchased a long, ranch-style house set on a wooded rise on the west side of Sunrise Drive. Their sole intention for the property was to provide a home for young people from Bainbridge who were ready to live away from their parents, but not alone or without support.

As a special education professional in the public school system, Lorraine had anticipated some of the hoops she and Steve would need to jump through between buying the house and opening its doors.

They undertook a year-long process to become state-licensed as a group home that included background checks, classes and a requirement to demonstrate 300 hours of having worked with developmentally disabled adults. Some of Lorraine’s work at BHS gave her a leg up on the hours; Steve, a marriage and family therapist, started from the ground up.

Hope House opened its doors in October 2006. There was no need to advertise for prospective residents, and no need for a sign on the door to announce the home’s presence.

“We were full before we were licensed,” Lorraine said.

Tim McKay, 21, has lived at Hope House since its inception. His mother, Heidi, calls it “an answer to my prayer.”

Tim is non-verbal, and Heidi describes him low functioning in comparison to the other four Hope House residents, all of whom are by pure coincidence men.

Heidi recognized Tim’s disability when he was 10 months old and as he got older, her concern for his well being and his future grew, especially when she contemplated the prospect of the family’s life after Tim left the supportive special education environment at BHS.

“Normal kids when they leave home, they don’t live with their parents,” she said.

The school nurse at BHS, Heidi had known Lorraine for years and knew of her plans. Like the other families whom Hope House serves, she got on board early. Now, she expects that for as long as Hope House exists, Tim will be there, enjoying activities and friends, including Steve, who calls Tim “one of my favorite people.”

The Ekholms themselves don’t live at Hope House. Steve is in and out during the day, and Lorraine comes over after work each afternoon. They employ a resident manager, Pam Klein, and host a small handful of assistants, largely college students interested in special education, some fulfilling their student teaching requirements.

During the day, most residents go their own ways, to jobs, volunteer positions, art and Aikido classes, and to day facilities like Winslow’s Stephens House, which offers a full roster of creative, vocational and social pursuits.

ACCESS, Kitsap County’s curb-to-curb shuttle service for elderly and disabled individuals, makes stops at Hope House five to six times a day to take residents back and forth to work and activities.

Lorraine said that at the beginning, she used to see the residents safely onto their buses and then hop in the car to follow them. Over time she’s seen their independence and interdependence on each other grow and flourish to the point where she no longer feels the need.

“They know each other so well, and they take care of each other,” she said.

Inside, the pervasive feel of Hope House is one of family. The house smells of cooking, and save a few state-required signs posted around the house, marking fire exits for example, there’s little to indicate that Hope House is anything other than a home.

“It’s an adult family, and we really try to make it as non-institutional as we can,” Steve said. “And we try to help people be as independent as we can.”

George Cruz, 23, works in a local cafe as a dishwasher, also taking out the trash and recycling and performing some food prep. He often reads to McKay – Dr. Seuss’s “Green Eggs and Ham” is a favorite – and helps McKay tie his shoes.

“We stay here to learn to take care of (our) own place,” Cruz said.

Cruz’s roommate, William Connor, also 23, loves music. He and Cruz have divided their two rooms into a single bedroom with a den across the hall where they can hang out, listen to tunes and noodle on their keyboard.

A great deal of time is spent hanging out in the living room, and the residents prepare and eat dinners together.

No one forces residents to make their beds, take out the trash or do other chores. But the Ekholms have found that with some guidance and support, the system sustains itself, in part because of the sense of accomplishment the young men glean from participating in household maintenance.

At the same time, they stress, they try to stand back as much as possible and “let them do their thing.” They certainly aren’t acting parental substitutes.

“We try really hard not to be Mommy and Daddy to these guys,” Lorraine said. “They don’t need it.”

At the start of January of this year, Hope House received 501(3)(c) nonprofit status, a boon to the organization in more ways that one. For starters, the state pays Hope House a daily rate per resident, which keeps the house going but has left no room for growth.

Its new status will enable the Ekholms and their newly formed board, which met for the first time two weeks ago, to create and pursue a vision for more residences like Hope House, so that young people like Cruz can spread their wings.

“On my own,” Cruz said. “Earning it. I’m independent.”

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