Sunday, November 29, 2009

Project Freedom in NJ tries to add more barrier-free housing to the state

From the Times of Trenton in N.J.:

The complexes look as ordinary as any newly built condos or townhouses. Located in several towns across the Mercer County area, these unique housing complexes are part of Project Freedom.

Co-founded by Norman Smith, Project Freedom is a nonprofit organization that develops and operates barrier-free housing for individuals with disabilities to live independently.

"We've had many people drive by looking for Project Freedom housing without actually seeing it. All they see is the housing, and the housing doesn't fit their concept of housing designed for people with disabilities. That's the way we want it," said Smith, who has cerebral palsy and lives in one of the complexes with his wife Shirley and 23-month-old son Joshua.

Project Freedom's housing is specifically designed for people with disabilities who use wheelchairs or have mobility impairments. This means that lowered light switches and kitchen cabinets and roll-in showers are standard for nearly every apartment to meet the physical needs of many people with disabilities.

As the associate executive director of the 25-year-old nonprofit agency, Smith describes himself as "chief cook and bottle washer" of Project Freedom because he handles so many tasks during one week. One day Smith may be giving advice to the staff about low-income housing-tax credits, the next day he is inputting data into Project Freedom's database and the next day he is commenting on emergency-preparedness issues for people with disabilities.

"Unfortunately, many people assume that people with disabilities cannot live on their own in the community, so they conclude wrongly that our housing is some type of institution with nursing staff, rules, curfews and supervision," said Smith. "That's totally wrong. It's unfortunate because thinking that way robs people of their dignity."

Smith has struggled with that himself, since cerebral palsy is a lifelong developmental disability that has affected much of his daily life. Because of it, he needs assistance with bathing, dressing, eating and going to the bathroom.

Building housing is not what Smith envisioned himself doing in 1979 when he graduated summa cum laude from Long Island University with degrees in journalism and political science. Smith credits his college experience for putting him on his current path.

"College was a freeing experience for me. It was really my first time on my own, completely in charge of what I did. This freedom is what I craved when I graduated and returned to my parent's home. Our name is no coincidence."

Project Freedom's corporate history started in 1984, but Smith started feeling the need for an alternative to living with his parents soon after returning home. His father, Richard, started having chest pains when he drove Smith around to his various activities. Smith was torn between continuing to be active in the community and staying home to save his parents work, trouble and pain.

"My parents were both in their 60s at this point, and I was just becoming active in both recreation and advocacy," said Smith. "The disability community loves to meet, and sometimes I had three evening meetings and then horseback riding in one week. This is fine if you're not depending on someone you love for transportation and dressing and that person is tired or in pain."

Desperately wanting to be able to live independently and give others the same opportunity, Smith partnered with Frieda Applegate and members of the Nottingham Recreation Center for the Physically Limited to establish Project Freedom.

Today, Project Freedom has four apartment complexes located around central New Jersey and more are expected to be built in the next few years.