At Friendship House, Walls between Disabled, Students Come Down (Jessica Bliss, The Tennessean)
Leo Kennedy leans across his wooden coffee table, his fingers to his mouth and a smirk on his face. It's as if he knows a secret about the chess board his opponent does not.
As that opponent, Alex Drury, lifts a pawn toward Kennedy, the expression remains - a satisfaction that comes with winning.
The friends don't talk much while they play. Kennedy can be closed off, at times, uncomfortable with group communication. But tangible moments, like Kennedy inviting Drury over for a game, connect them.
At 24 years old, Kennedy, who falls on the autism spectrum, is living on his own for the first time - and entertaining in his own apartment for the first time. Drury is a new neighbor, and a new friend.
They live in a cluster of adjoined apartments on top of a steep drive in Chestnut Hill, a South Nashville neighborhood. There, young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and Vanderbilt Divinity School graduate students live and interact together in a small residential community called Friendship House.
Through the community, those with disabilities learn to live interdependently. They develop friendships with typical students, grilling bratwurst together, going to see "Captain America" at the movie theater and playing chess.
The university students learn what daily life looks like for those with a disability, dispelling misconceptions and gaining understanding. As neighbors, they personally encounter each other's challenges - like what to do if the lights go out - and victories like getting a new job. The hope is, when they graduate and leave Friendship House, they will move on as advocates for the disabled community and agents for social change.
Friendship House is the first of a long-term project plan to provide affordable housing to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Tennessee Housing and Development Agency provided a grant of $285,000, and the Metropolitan Development and Housing Authority provided $473,000 to give this project the necessary funding.
Ribbon cutting took place a little more than a year ago, on Feb. 27, 2015. By summer, the community filled with residents, three with disabilities and eight without. Now, the Nashville IDD Housing Group has started fundraising for its second project, a 20-resident complex just around the corner from the original with a path connecting the two to bring the communities together.
Most every parent of a child with disabilities worries about the future. Nearly 21,000 people in the Nashville area live with intellectual or developmental disabilities - most of them live with their families. Aging parents, in particular, worry about where their adult child will stay once Mom and Dad have died. The Nashville area lacks sufficient options for those who are not extremely poor or very wealthy. Thousands of individuals are on the waiting list for housing and other support services.
Friendship House does not serve as an end-all solution - communities are intentionally small, with a resident ratio of 3:1, three typical adults to every one with intellectual or developmental disabilities. There are many with disabilities - autism, Down syndrome, Fragile X - who are limited and may never be able to live alone. But for those who are able but who never believed they would get the chance, living independently - with community support - can be life changing.
Built-in supportIn the Friendship House community, three individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities - community members often referred to as "friends" - rent a one-bedroom apartment. Six Vanderbilt Divinity School students occupy three two-bedroom apartments. A young married couple who graduated from Belmont University, Jordan and Bailey Collins, live in the fourth apartment and serve as the resident directors at Friendship House.
Born and raised in Durban, South Africa, Jordan Collins wears dark brown dreadlocks down his back and an easy smile that raises the edges of his bearded cheeks. As his gentle accent may convey, he loves all things from his home - rugby, cricket and rooibos tea - and he can speak a little Zulu and a good amount of Afrikaans.
He moved to the United States five years ago and graduated cum laude from Belmont in May 2015, majoring in Christian leadership and minoring in music performance with a focus in percussion. He married Bailey one month later and now works as a housing specialist at Catholic Charities of Tennessee, welcoming refugees and helping them get resettled.
Jordan Collins grew up going to church with a family that adopted four special-needs children, he volunteered at a camp for individuals with disabilities when he moved to the States, and, for both he and Bailey, living in an intentional community was important. With Friendship House it all aligned.
"Experiencing life with people - no matter who they are, whether they are like you or different than you in age or gender or race or anything - it's better," Jordan Collins says.
It comes with some adjustment, like being OK with answering a knock on the door when you are getting ready for bed. Jordan has learned to be patient and intentional. But a community also comes with built-in support, a place to borrow butter or ask for a jump for a dead car battery.
As resident directors, he and Bailey do not live there to boss anyone around, to tell anyone how to act or what to do. They are there just to be neighbors, to be friends.
Finding themselvesFriendship, authentic and valuable, spreads between apartments. Once a week, on Thursdays, the residents gather for a meal together.
At first, when the relationships were new, silence came easier than conversation. As they have grown together, chatter echoes inside the apartment where they gather.
Plates piled high with potato chips and potato salad, the group collects on the floral couch and checkered armchair around a wood coffee table in the Collinses' living room. Conversation carries from slushies at Sonic to choice villain in a Disney movie.
Matt Branch, in particular, is a Disney fan. So much so, he gave Jordan and Bailey a Jasmine doll from the movie "Aladdin" for Christmas.
Branch, a tall and slender but solidly built brown-haired 26-year-old, falls on the autism spectrum. He earned a special education diploma from Glencliff High School and now is a second-year student in Lipscomb University's IDEAL program while he studies to get his GED. He works part time on Lipscomb's grounds crew and volunteers at his church.
A proud member of Tennessee's Civil Air Patrol - where he holds the rank of captain - Branch speaks with the properness of someone with authority, his deep voice carrying across a room. He also boasts about his aunt, who works for the fire department. When you find things in common for him to talk about, he lights up.
His first few weeks on his own were scary, he said, but the security of having Jordan and Bailey next door eased the transition. On his own, he has learned to clean his own dishes, do his own laundry, pay his own bills, pick up his stuff. Though Friendship House is not suitable for those with intellectual disabilities who need constant supervision, for people like Branch, who can drive and maintain a job, the setup works well.
"Everybody looks for themselves at some point," his mom, India Triplett, says. "He was looking for himself." When the chance presented itself to have her son live independently, she couldn't say no.
Never before had Branch sat in a friend's apartment, laughing easily and doing his impression of Sebastian, the animated crab from Disney's "Little Mermaid." His Caribbean accent makes friends Steven Greiner and Eric Morgan crack up - nearly spitting out potato salad beside him.
Originally from northern Arkansas, Morgan worked as a college and career coach for low-income high school students before moving to Nashville in 2013. Now in his third year of Vanderbilt's Master of Divinity program, he focuses on the role of spirituality in career decision-making. He works at Belmont as an academic coach. When not reading about theologians who lived centuries ago, he enjoys a good Netflix binge and exploring Nashville's culinary scene.
That's where he and Greiner bonded.
It began with late-night television binges of "I Love Lucy" and "Archer." It evolved to dinner runs at McDougal's. Morgan taught Greiner to fry chicken.
Morgan admits he first wanted to move to Friendship House because it was cheap housing. But now it's more than that.
When Morgan's dad died last winter, Greiner - a 30-year-old with an intellectual disability - reached out more than any others in the community, making sure his friend was OK. And that, Morgan said, surprised him - though maybe it shouldn't have.
These community members face true disabilities. Some with these diagnoses can be very limited in intelligence, maturity and what they can do. That led Morgan to come into this experience with preconceived notions. Much of that has been challenged - for him and the others who live there.
There are so many places in this world where a person can't be his or herself, Bailey Collins says. So many places tell the disabled population that it is not good enough. But in this space, they don't have to be "Steven with a disability" or "Matt with a disability" or "Leo with a disability." They just get to be Steven, Matt and Leo.
"And I think if we can encourage that more, then hopefully those walls will start to come down," she said.
"Obviously, we're not going to change the whole world here, but we get to change the world of individuals. Which is so cool."
Here, Kennedy gets to mold his own life the same way any other young adult would.
"He's just another one of the guys," his mother, Nan Kennedy, says.
And the other guys are role models who draw the good out of him.
Kennedy earned a high school diploma and worked a job he didn't really like at a grocery store until he moved into Friendship House. With help from a job coach at Best Buddies, he got a part-time job at Home Depot. There, he excelled, earning a promotion to full time and his first Homer Award, given to "associates who consistently demonstrate behaviors that reflect The Home Depot's values."
His goal now is to be allowed to drive the fork lift - and continue to beat Drury at chess.
Drury hails from Satellite Beach, Fla. He earned his bachelor's degree in religion at Florida State before beginning his master's in theology at Vanderbilt's Divinity School in 2013. He became the first student to "graduate" from Friendship House after graduating from Vanderbilt this month.
He calls his experience here transformative, running his fingers through his shaggy dark hair as he searches for how to describe why.
When he first moved in, he questioned how a person is supposed to act around a person with a disability. "Turns out you act just like you normally would," he says with a laugh.
Drury will remain in Nashville and plans to stay a part of Friendship House by building a fire pit for residents to gather around and landscaping the area behind Friendship House for more communal space.
It will be hard for his new friends, particularly Kennedy, to see Drury move away.
In Kennedy's previous years living at home, his parents were always trying to pair Kennedy up with somebody to make a friendship. It was "very, very difficult, because the people available for friends were often other people with disabilities," his mom says.
Living with typical adults "draws out everything in him that is positive."
"He doesn't want to live under someone else's rules," she says. "He doesn't have to be different there.
"Friendship House allows him to be a regular adult and be himself. That doesn't mean he's typical, but he can be who he is and that's OK."
Part of being a regular adult means saying goodbye to a friend. That's how friendships are sometimes; people move away. But if they are a good friend, they will stay in touch.
And maybe come by for a game of chess.
Reach Jessica Bliss at 615-259-8253 and on Twitter @jlbliss.