BENNINGTON, Vt. — Of all the challenges that conspire to keep Vermonters who live with disabilities from being able to stay in their homes, some are heartbreakingly simple to overcome: the lack of a ramp to an outside door, for instance, or a grab bar or detachable shower head in a bathroom.
A source of funds, and a contractor to do the work, is usually all that’s needed. Bringing those two together is the work of the Vermont Center for Independent Living’s Home Access Program, or HAP.
Staff members from HAP were in Bennington one recent weekday to put on an informational seminar for contractors who might be interested in working with the agency. Bennington was chosen because it’s one of three “pockets of need” that the agency has identified; other seminars were held in St. Albans and Lyndonville, two other areas where there’s unmet demand.
The program’s mission, explained Patricia Tedesco, the HAP coordinator for VCIL, is to work with funders to make homes more accessible to Vermonters who are on limited incomes and have permanent physical or mobility disabilities, so that they can remain living independently in their own homes.
“We have a waiting list of about two years, with about 40 people on the wait list. And when we reviewed our wait list, we looked statewide at where the pockets of need were,” Tedesco said. “While we have contractors who are in the area, we have additional funding this year and we need additional contractors.”
The HAP’s three-hour seminar, held in the North Street offices of NeighborWorks, attracted about a half-dozen contractors, as well as representatives of other agencies that frequently partner with the program.
Tedesco explained that if a qualified applicant can secure $2,000 in leveraged funding for a bathroom modification, or $1,000 for a ramp, they can usually move off the wait list onto the list of current projects. Part of HAP’s mission is to help applicants find those other sources of money.
In the most recent fiscal year, HAP was able to find more than $244,000 in leveraged funding to add to its $373,000 in grant money, enabling the project to carry out 80 projects in Vermont. Of those 80, 7 were in Bennington County.
“The more partners we can work with to package the deal, if you will, the more the money is able to spread out and help people on the wait list,” Tedesco said. “We have an injection of about $200,000 this calendar year from the (state) housing bond, and that has to get spent this year. So we’re going to get fast and furious pretty soon, but we’re trying to get the contractor training out of the way, get new people signed up, do financial partnering and get going.”
Included in the day was not only an overview of what HAP is and does, but some training in the etiquette of working with people with disabilities, a rundown on paperwork and getting paid, lunchtime conversation over sandwiches, and a roundtable discussion that began with solutions to installing grab bars and ended with ideas for teaching future carpenters.
For Tedesco, that kind of unstructured conversation is one of the biggest benefits of a HAP seminar. “That happens every time,” she said. “We plan it in, and we never know where it’s going to go.”
Having a room full of contractors who will be visiting people with disabilities gives HAP a great opportunity to spread the word about VCIL’s other programs, too — AgrAbility, or instance, designed to support farm families, or the Vermont Interpreter Referral Service, which provides American Sign Language interpreter referral services for medical, legal, employment and other situations. “Whenever we’re out, we try to also talk about the other programs. So you’re out to dinner with somebody and you hear that somebody has a need, and you think, ‘Oh yeah, VCIL might be able to help them.'”
Usually, applicants are referred to HAP by another agency, but it’s not a requirement. “Because we have this additional influx of money, we’re looking for applicants. We’re always looking for applicants,” Tedesco said. “We work a lot with case managers throughout the state. The area agency on aging generally knows about us. The visiting nurse association. Word of mouth. That’s what we try to do, get out into the community.
“This is really about advocacy,” she continued. “We don’t do case management. We work side-by-side. So we don’t do ‘for,’ we do ‘with.'”
Traveling to communities around the state gives HAP staff the opportunity to form stronger relationships with contractors and partner programs, which ultimately helps get ramps built, and bathrooms modified. “We’ve had communication with just about all of these folks through email, but it’s another thing to be in a room face-to-face, able to shake hands, eye-to-eye and have the dialogue,” Tedesco said.
And then sometimes, there’s just a little bit more. “Did you take a sandwich home for your wife?” Tedesco called out after a departing contractor. “Take a sandwich. Take a cookie!”
Information from: Bennington Banner, http://www.benningtonbanner.com