Giving access, support and independence

Housing: Columbia's Orthodox Church of St. Matthew provides a home for 15 low-income adults who have significant physical disabilities.

January 31, 2003|By Donna W. Payne | Donna W. Payne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A colorful icon of the Apostle Matthew graces the foyer of an unusual and upscale apartment building adjacent to Kings Contrivance Village Center.

Beneath the figure are the words of Jesus as recorded in St. Matthew's Gospel: "I was a stranger and you took me in."

The reference - Jesus' teaching that help to those in need is service to God - aptly fits the purpose and the history of the building, called St. Matthew House, which is home to 15 low-income adults who have significant physical disabilities.

It is a project that the Rev. Raymond Velencia identifies spiritually as a "work of the Lord" and practically as a successful example of the faith-based initiatives advocated by the Bush administration and others.

Velencia is rector of Columbia's Orthodox Church of St. Matthew, which meets in temporary facilities at Wilde Lake Village Center.

A groundbreaking is planned this year for a permanent home in the interfaith center that will be built adjacent to St. Matthew House.

In 1994, the congregation formed a nonprofit organization that brought together governmental, corporate and social groups to finance, build and manage the $1.6 million facility.

The project was inspired by parishioner Maria Turley, a nurse with multiple sclerosis who lived at St. Matthew House until the severity of her illness forced her into a nursing home eight months before her death last year.

St. Matthew House "has been built specifically for people with physical disabilities to allow them to live in an accessible, supportive environment in the community, with the purpose of enabling them to remain as independent as possible," Velencia said.

From the wide outdoor porch to the three-story atrium, the design of the airy, many-windowed facility provides an exceptionally attractive living area.

Communal areas - a living room with fireplace, group kitchen, laundry room, computer workspaces and a state-of-the-art hydrotherapy room - make up one-third of the space within the 18,500-square-foot building.

The emphasis on communal living in a family-like atmosphere is important to individuals who are sometimes isolated because of their disabilities, Velencia said.

"This was my first real home. ... I never had a real family," said resident Andrea Griffin, who lived in a nursing home.

Griffin, who volunteers as a disability-awareness instructor, makes the occasional pot of soup for a group meal and keeps the photo album that documents the residents' holiday parties for their grandchildren.

Physically disabled individuals must have an income of less than $22,100 and be able to care for themselves to rent one of the subsidized, specially designed apartments. Each one-bedroom unit has a kitchenette with wheelchair-accessible cabinets and sink, and a bathroom with grab-bars and a roll-in shower.

"It gives a whole lot of freedom," said resident Harry Johnson, who became disabled after a car accident.

An accomplished artist who once sculpted in stone, Johnson now uses a "really wonderful" computer program to create his art. He said he enjoys watching the activity below his windows because it helps him to "get involved" with the outside world.

Marie Davis, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, lived in an upstairs, no-elevator apartment in Elkridge before moving to St. Matthew House. She said that simple things, such as being able to visit the barrier-free village center next door to buy a birthday card, are important emblems of independence.

"It's like our [own] little town over there," she said.

Kristi Patico Koumentakos, operations manager for the facility, and volunteer Juanita Robinson, who lives on the premises as resident manager - both members of the St. Matthew church - said community support is crucial for the residents to maintain their independence.

They said that merchants at the village center know the residents by name and have made accommodations for them, and that church members provide meals, furniture and other aid from time to time.

But, said Patico Koumentakos, finding government funding for minor supportive services is "one of the biggest frustrations of our job."

She mentioned the need of several residents for help with housekeeping and food shopping. Robinson said there is also a need for regular night-time transportation.

Ancillary support to help people remain independent can cost far less than would be necessary in a managed-care facility, they said.

Government could save "oodles and oodles" of money, Velencia said, by providing supportive funding for projects that help people live independently, and by taking advantage of the "out-of-the-box" thinking, volunteer support and religious commitment that is typical of faith-based initiatives such as St. Matthew House.

"I think all churches should have something like this," Robinson said. "Churches are close to the people."

Information: 410-381-8500.

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