Tonawanda News

October 18, 2012

KEPPELER: In a house at the end of the street

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — I drove past 52 Dixon Drive this morning.

It’s a very nice house, in a nice neighborhood. I could see myself living there. I could see my family taking strolls on those shaded streets, sitting on that porch, playing on that lawn. It looks, well, welcoming.

Maybe that’s why it’s so hard for me to wrap my brain around the whole brouhaha involving the location of an upcoming respite home for developmentally disabled children, at that very nice house at the corner of Dixon Drive.

Community Services for the Developmentally Disabled plans to open the home next spring, using it to help alleviate the desperate need for overnight respite sites in Buffalo and its ‘burbs. Some families have been on waiting lists for years for overnight respite, and none of the current facilities that meet this need are in this area, said Kari Heigl, director of funding and development for Community Services.

The house will be used by up to six young people per weekday afternoon, teens who will be aging out of school and who need to prepare for living as adults and getting ready for work. They get to learn the ropes in an actual home, and their parents or caregivers get a break. Win-win.

Long-term, the house will offer overnight respite services to up to four children (ages 5 to 18) at a time, giving them a safe place to stay while their families do whatever they need to do, whether it be work or simply get a good night’s sleep. Plans are to start with two, Friday through Monday, and work up to four.

In other words, that nice house will have kids in it. Not monsters. Not criminals. Kids. 

You couldn’t tell from the reaction, though. A resident petition was brought to the Town of Tonawanda board, objecting to the facility. Another resident wants a hearing, wants to make Community Services go before state officials to defend something completely legal and legit. 

Complaints include traffic (for a handful of kids and caregivers? Really?), the plans to fence part of the property (because fences are so unheard of in the suburbs. Yes, that’s sarcasm) and the dropping of the property from tax rolls. Yes, I’m sure the $5,975 in taxes the house generated in 2012 will be a mammoth hit to the town.

Or, of course, that it just “doesn’t fit” in the neighborhood. Every time I hear a line like that, I wonder where they think it would fit. Simply someplace else? Someplace where “those people” belong?

Do I sound angry? Good. I am angry.

I’m furious that I’m seeing this sort of Neanderthal attitude in a neighborhood in a community that I love. A community where I live. With my family. Which includes a son with special needs.

His name is Jim. He’s 7, just about to turn 8. He loves basketball, music, school and taunting his brother. I’ve written about him before. Does that put a face on the issue for you? It should.

It’s entirely possible he’d be staying a night at 52 Dixon Drive someday. Way to make him feel welcome, folks. 

I read about these complaints and I wonder. What if my family bought that house? What then? What if it was another family with a child or children with special needs, a family with multiple vehicles to transport said children, with plans to fence the yard? Would residents sign a petition against them?

I have to believe they wouldn’t ... because it would come across as a intolerant, hateful, ignorant thing to do. So why is this different?

Talking about the issue, Heigl sounds a little resigned. 

“I think it’s a difficult process for people to understand and they grasp at straws,” she said. “It’s not unusual for people to be afraid of what they don’t understand, of change.

“We’re used to it. It’s been worse other places.”

They say it’s not about the kids. But anyone could move into that house, with vehicles in the driveway, plans to fence and children to supervise, and other residents wouldn’t get all up in arms about that. Why is this different?

It’s not.

Say what they will, ultimately it comes down to the fact that some folks don’t want people who are different in their neighborhood. People like a 7-year-old boy who loves to dance to music, talks to his grandparents on the phone every night and who carries a stuffed frog to bed. 

And, frankly, I don’t want those people in his.

Jill Keppeler is a writer for the Tonawanda News. She can be reached at jill.keppeler@tonawanda-news.com.