BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — DANVERS — When Emily Korkaris’ daughter, Christina Kalafatis, grew out of services from the public schools at age 22, there were few places for a young woman with cognitive disabilities to live on the North Shore.
Korkaris said the concern was that if Christina moved home, she would lose the skills she had acquired to be independent. And with family and friends in Danvers, it didn’t make sense for her to attend a program on Cape Cod.
“If you ask Christina, she would tell you: ‘I’m a Danvers girl,’” Korkaris said.
Two years ago, Korkaris, with the help of her other two daughters, Angelina and Eleni Kalafatis, founded a residential program for those with intellectual disabilities called LITEhouse Inc., with LITE short for Learning Independence Through Experiences.
The Oak Street home, which can hold up to five people, is aimed at fostering a small community of young adults with similar disabilities. The residents have independence, the ability to grab a cup of coffee or pizza at downtown shops, with the addition of a full-time, live-in staff member to provide transportation or other forms of support. The program’s nonprofit status is pending with the state.
Christina attended Danvers schools until middle school in 2004. Then, when the system could no longer accommodate her needs, the schools placed her in an out-of-district program. Later, the family found a program on Cape Cod called Riverview School, a residential school for young adults with learning or cognitive disabilities. The school goes up to age 22.
As Christina, who spent four years at Riverview, entered the adult world, the family found that there were no programs for her that matched her level of ability and independence.
“Just because they are 22 and are done with school doesn’t mean they have to stop learning,” Korkaris said. “They can keep the momentum going.”
Angelina, a nursing student at Fitchburg State University, said that while some young adults with disabilities do live at home and get outside services, this option didn’t make sense for her sister.
“She went to this school that was two hours away, that taught her all these independence skills, and it taught her how to be an advocate for herself, and it taught her how to strive for more,” Angelina said.
Korkaris said the LITEhouse program takes care of the worry about what might happen when she gets older and can no longer care for her daughter.
“It gives them that extra bit of support,” Angelina said.
What kind of support does Christina need?
“She might forget to turn off the oven when she’s cooking,” Angelina said.
“An ambulance might go by in the middle of the night and scare her,” Korkaris said.
With no houses to rent downtown, Korkaris’ father, Nikolaos, mortgaged his home to buy the rundown, 1880s house in July. He then allowed the program, which pays him rent, to make changes to the building.
The women said that creating the program from scratch was daunting, but they got help. Angelina’s friends helped clean the walls or do other odd jobs to fix the place up. An electrician donated his time to bring the home’s wiring up to code.
Some inside walls were moved to create bedrooms and a better flow to the home. And, because the program does not have anyone who is in a wheelchair, and it’s not equipped to do so, it did not have to build a ramp. The renovations were done according to state Department of Developmental Services regulations, Korkaris said.
While it is not a state program, residents pay rent through funding they get through DDS or other services or benefits. Families may also pay privately, but Angelina said they try to avoid that because of the expense to families, though she said the program is reasonably priced.
The program’s two residents now include Christina and a young woman from Marblehead who met Christina at Riverview School. A third woman who lives there provides full-time support. Both young residents presently attend a program called Life Choices at the Cummings Center in Beverly. Another young woman is arriving in June.
LITEhouse is not for everyone. The program does not provide 24-hour nursing staff, so it cannot accommodate someone with serious medical problems. It is also not for anyone with severe psychiatric or behavioral imbalances, Angelina said.
“It has to be a good match,” Korkaris said. The most important thing is that residents have to get along with each other.
“We really, really strive to promote support rather than do for,” Angelina said.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.