By Michelle Cassell
HOPE NC. It is not an acronym. The goal of this nonprofit group is to create inclusive communities that would house people of all ages, races, and abilities. It retains hope that someday an inclusive community will be built in or near Chapel Hill.
Established in 2018 by three parents: Dotty Foley, Orah Raia and Ginny Dropkin – all who have sons with autism and have decades of experience in the disability field, combined with their personal experience of issues facing individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD).
They know first-hand many families’ dilemma: where will their adult children go when their aging parents or caregivers can no longer provide for them? Consequently, these women formed HOPE NC, a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to tackling that issue. No intentional communities are in or near Chapel Hill, but HOPE is making inroads in the Durham North Street Neighborhood intentional community with a new pilot program.
Laura Wells became HOPE Executive Director in 2022. “I want to say that, while we are still looking for land, we just started a new partnership with the North Street intentional community in Durham. They already have adults with I/DD in the community living in their own homes alongside people without disabilities,” Wells said.
The North Street Neighborhood community was created about 12 years ago and recently realized that some of the folks with I/DD were not participating in community events. “When one of the homeowners joined the board, we [HOPE] approached them about an integration project where we could work with an existing community… and try to do what we want to do, before we can build one from the ground up,” Wells explained.
By doing this, HOPE could try out the community facilitator model they had already created: having staff on site who will make sure all the residents are engaged and that there are activities and programs people can participate in while getting to know one another. The model also incorporates identifying resources that may be lacking and the need to connect residents to them.
HOPE’s first community facilitator started on January 1, 2024, at the North Street Neighborhood community. The community has 40 homes on two blocks and about 100 residents. Twenty-five percent of those residents have I/DD.
Wells was excited to share that HOPE received a grant to hire an evaluator who will work with them to design and implement an evaluation for 2024. The evaluation will review how the community facilitator model works to increase the engagement and sense of belonging of adults with I/DD who live in the North Street community.
“When the North Street opportunity arose, we jumped at it because it completely synchronized with what we want to achieve: creating that sense of belonging in the community,” said Orah Raia, president and co-founder of HOPE NC.
Buildable land has not been attained
HOPE’s efforts have not been without frustration. Raia said they had pursued Weavers Grove as a location for an inclusive community.
“We certainly did explore those opportunities with both Habitat for Humanity and Garman Homes, which is building the single-family homes, and the developer who is building the condominiums,” Raia said.
She said they had several discussions, but nothing panned out for HOPE in Weavers Grove. “Each of those has their own entities fulfilling their needs. Even though we were very excited about the possibility of collaborating with them, it turned out that we were hoping to look at the condominiums and do some type of integrative model where they might set aside ‘x’ amount of units. The issue was really that we’re still looking for that affordability. And many of the homes in Weavers Grove were market price,” Raia said.
Another location HOPE pursued was having part of the development on Legion Road. The Town of Chapel Hill recently announced they were partnering with DHIC in Raleigh. “We had high hopes for Legion Road. We put in an application with our partners POAH, Preservation of Affordable Homes, but we were not selected.”
Raia said affordability has been the most difficult key piece in locating potential sites. With the price of land going up, it makes the structure more untenable to make the homes affordable for the individuals HOPE wants living in them – particularly people on Social Security and fixed incomes.
Expanding HOPE’s search
HOPE is open to looking anywhere in the Triangle area that might offer land for an affordable price. In addition to land, they are looking for partnerships. “What seems to make the most sense [is] with other mission-driven organizations, such as churches that might have extra land and they might want to ground lease us the land,” Raia said.
HOPE has all the pieces they believe will make an inclusive community successful. “We have a developer; we just need the land. So we are looking for a partnership with interested organizations,” Wells said.
Current stakeholders in HOPE
The stakeholder group is composed of 30 different organizations from Chatham, Wake, Durham and Orange Counties. They meet quarterly and work on collective impact goals using funds they obtained from a five-year grant.
One of the other initiatives HOPE took on in 2023 was to get a group of people with like-minded missions similar to HOPE throughout the state. “We realized, just as with the collective impact grant, that HOPE can’t do it all by themselves. We are looking for people in the state who may have varying degrees of their idea of a community but have the same idea of an intentional community for people with and without disabilities. And we’ve had so far two meetings with all these individuals throughout the state, not just in this area, with the idea of sharing resources,” Raia said.
HOPE’s challenges for 2024
Wells said the first step is figuring out the next step beyond their one-year strategic plan of evaluating the community facilitator role. Then, a two- or three-year plan would be to partner with a community being built.
Raia said, “We want people to know that we are continuing to look for that parcel of land and are still open to that. Should we get that opportunity to get a parcel of land, we will pursue that 100 percent.”
Michelle Cassell is a seasoned reporter who has covered everything from crime to hurricanes and local politics to human interest over the course of 35 years. As managing editor, she hopes to encourage writers of a wide range of backgrounds and interests in TLR’s coverage of Southern Orange County news.