Selma’s Home — North Carolina’s First ABILITY House

Circa 2007
From the Top: Selma’s inaccessible trailer; Congressman Bob Etheridge meeting Selma in her trailer; volunteers starting the build; Selma visiting the worksite of her new home
From the Top: Selma’s inaccessible trailer; Congressman Bob Etheridge meeting Selma in her trailer; volunteers starting the build; Selma visiting the worksite of her new home

The picture is stark: A woman sits in her wheelchair in a small trailer. Only three concrete steps lie between the trailer’s threshold and the ground below, but they prevent her from venturing outside. Narrow doorways make it impossible for her to move from one room to another. Curtains cover the small living room window where she spends most of her days, isolated from the outside world.

A car accident in 1999 left Selma Smith with severe quadriplegia. Then, “friends” who stepped in to oversee her finances left her in near financial ruin, and a frightening nursing home experience led her to conclude she was actually safer living in near isolation than in a total-care facility.

As Americans, we understand that such situations occur every day in developing countries. We expect systems to break down in countries with fewer resources. But sometimes we look, yet don’t see, when things go horribly wrong right around us. Living in the small town of Benson, North Carolina, Selma is only one of many thousands of individuals in this country whose circumstances dictate a life of confinement. Whether due to acquired disabilities or age-related mobility issues, increasing numbers of Americans are finding themselves in homes that don’t accommodate their changing needs. Unfortunately, many of these individuals lack the means necessary to incorporate even simple accessibility features into their homes.

Fortunately, there are programs, both government and nonprofit, that provide assistance to people like Selma. Bright and educated, she never resigned herself to a shut-in’s life, and through tenacity she eventually became connected with Johnston County Habitat for Humanity and the nonprofit organization ABILITY Awareness, which hosts the award-winning ABILITY House program. Through the program, ABILITY partners with local Habitat for Humanity affiliates to construct accessible, low-income homes for people with disabilities, while also inviting volunteers with disabilities to help build the homes.

It wasn’t by accident or coincidence that ABILITY Awareness and Johnston County Habitat for Humanity began to discuss building a home in this small town about an hour and a half from Raleigh. Debbie Privet, a staffer in Congressman Bob Etheridge’s district office, saw an ad in ABILITY Magazine for the ABILITY House program and recognize the benefit this type of build could bring to the community. A telephone call later and the wheels were set in motion.

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Initially, Judi Pennella, of ABILITY Awareness, expressed concern about the prospective location: “In the past, our organization has built ABILITY Houses in metropolitan areas with large, fully staffed Habitat for Humanity affiliates,” she said. “So coming to a mostly volunteer-run affiliate like Johnston County Habitat for Humanity and building in a small town at first made me a little anxious. We knew we’d have some new challenges. But we soon realized there was no reason to worry. This small, Southern community adopted the project wholeheartedly, and this ABILITY House will be a model for future homes.” The town of Benson is also credited for rallying behind the project and providing vital support from start to finish, an attitude that can make all the difference in the success of such an endeavor.

Ned Walsh, executive director of Johnston County Habitat for Humanity, had his own initial reservations: “We really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into with building an ABILITY House. I was concerned about working with volunteers with disabilities and partnering with another organization. I admit I believed they were going to hold us back… but I was wrong. Working with ABILITY Awareness and their staff has been a catalyst for us, and it’s opened my eyes to why building accessible housing is so important for our future.”

Nine months after the ground-breaking ceremony for North Carolina’s first ABILITY House—a ceremony that Selma ironically missed as she was unable to leave her trailer—Selma moved into her beautiful new home. As is protocol for every ABILITY House, volunteers with all types of health conditions and disabilities had pitched in to help build her a place that would return her to independence and freedom.

“This home means everything to me. A home is the foundation of a family,” Selma said as she looked over her new home, tears welling in her eyes. Her ABILITY House includes many standard universal design features such as doorways and hallways that are at least 36 inches wide, no-step entrances and an accessible restroom. In addition to features that will make the home more accessible and convenient for all people, Selma’s home also takes into account her more specific needs and boasts a state-of-the-art lift system donated by SureHands Lift & Care Systems. This fully supported system will take her from her bed or wheelchair into the restroom, allowing Selma the option of a full shower for the first time in eight years.

“We are proud to play a small but very important part in this mission,” said Thomas Herceg, SureHands’ president. “Our goal is to enable Selma and her family to overcome the obstacles in performing basic activities for daily living. Ease with those tasks can leave her with more time and energy for more rewarding activities.”

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One such activity on Selma’s to-do list? Grocery shopping! Just a block from the nearest grocery store, Selma doesn’t hide her excitement about being able to roam the aisles and select her own groceries for a change. The only person more excited than Selma is probably her son. Having served as one of his mother’s primary caretakers for many years, he chuckles as he talks about always picking out the wrong groceries and agrees that this will be a simple freedom his mother will relish.

While the foremost goal of every party involved has been to move Selma from the confinement of her trailer to an accessible home, many have observed that the ABILITY House program has a more far-reaching effect on the community as well. As a result of typical Habitat volunteers working alongside volunteers with disabilities, participants begin to recognize and work with the skills and talents each person brings, as opposed to focusing on what are assumed to be limitations.

“North Carolina’s first ABILITY House showcased how easily many different organizations and groups can come together with some planning and project management,” said Jerry Hill who acted as project coordinator for WellsFargo Home Mortgage, a sponsor of the home along with Genworth Financial. Congressman Etheridge volunteered as honorary project chairman, with additional support for the ABILITY House program from ABILITY Magazine.

Said Hill, “It can be tough working with so many different groups because everyone has a slightly different agenda and their own way to proceed, but keeping the goal of building this home upfront makes it a lot easier to compromise.”

And with a goal of building more homes in North Carolina and across the country, many more will someday get to experience the same life-transforming freedoms that an ABILITY House can offer.

 ABILITY House is a groundbreaking program of the nonprofit ABILITY Awareness, whose mission is to build a world of inclusion for people with disabilities through employment, education, media and volunteer opportunities. ABILITY Awareness actively seeks to partner with organizations to build affordable, accessible homes for people with disabilities. The ABILITY House program is supported in part by a federal grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service, and assistance from founding and continuing sponsor ABILITY Magazine.

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