IM this article to a friend!

January 27, 2005

Retiring Riverbank

From: Danvers Herald - Beverly,MA,USA - jan 27, 2005

By William Henderson/
Thursday, January 27, 2005

Helen Keller, in 1924, felt there were possibilities in Danvers, with its elegant homes, its waterfront views and its leisurely pace of life.

She and Annie Sullivan - her friend and teacher, whose efforts to teach the deaf and blind Keller as a child were chronicled in the play "The Miracle Worker" - helped broker a deal between Danvers property-owner John Frederick Hussey and the New England Home for Deaf Mutes. The deal gave the home the elegant Hussey mansion called Riverbank.

Residents soon relocated from the home's overcrowded Everett headquarters into the Danvers home. For the first time, according to the home's CEO and President, Judith Good, the residents had more than enough space in which to live.

These days the elegant mansion, which went on to house the New England Homes for the Deaf for 79 years, sits unused, marked by cramped hallways and peeling paint, well-worn staircases and bedroom-only suites, a single bathroom per hall of residents and pipes that sometimes freeze as soon as temperatures fall below 20 degrees.

Good said she knew in 1992 that the residents and their needs could outgrow Riverbank. She thought about whether it made more sense to renovate the building, installing elevators and additional bathrooms, or whether the home would be better served by a newer, more modern building, a building that she and the residents would be proud to call home.

She spearheaded an effort to add a three-story building to the home's land, rendering Riverbank, at least for the time being, superfluous.

Something new

Instead of Riverbank, residents now reside in that new, three-story structure, along with Thompson House, a HUD-sponsored 24-unit independent-living on-site apartment complex.

"The residents just love that building," Good said of Thompson House, from its use of visual cues, like flashing lights, to signal a ringing doorbell, to their beds that shake if someone triggers the fire alarm.

The Thompson House is a place for deaf and deaf-blind residents not yet in need of assisted living or nursing home services. It's a strictly independent-living facility, and while part of the home's larger campus, does not receive services like those offered to the residents living in the home's new building.

Residents at the Thompson House must learn how to make do on their own. In time, most of them move from the Thompson House into the main building, already having a relationship with their neighbors and with the home's staff.

Visitors enter the new building on its second floor. There is a sitting room on the left of the entrance inside the building, and administrative offices on the right. Directly in front of the entrance, down a hallway large enough to push three wheelchairs side-by-side down it, is the nurse's station. Here, residents receive any necessary medication and can have assistance in making phones calls.

Most of the staff begin working at the home already knowing American Sign Language. If not, continued employment hinges on learning. Many of the staff members are also partially or completely deaf, which allows for a greater understanding and empathy for the residents, Good said.

The assisted living facilities are located on this second floor. Each of the 30 beds on this floor are filled with deaf residents who need little help but who can no longer live alone. The facility's nursing home services are located on the third floor. Already, there are 18 residents living here, with another 12 set to move in once the state inspects and signs off on the premises.

Good said this is more a formality than anything else. The state also signed off on the facility's assisted living floor before the home was allowed to fill it.

The assisted living floor is for residents needing help with daily activities like medication management, showers, shopping and cooking, while the second floor residents require more nursing and physical help.

Good expects to completely fill the building by the end of 2005. She already has a waiting list started for bed space on the second floor. Each week she hears from people looking to move in, and each week she has to tell them that there's just not enough space at the moment, even though she has more space in the new building than she ever dreamed possible.

The building's communal rooms - a community room, a large cafeteria, an activity's room and multiple outdoor sun porches - differentiate the new from the old building. At Riverbank, the home's signature building, residents did not have that kind of space available to them. This is one of the reasons the home has few options when thinking about this building's future.

Whither Riverbank?

Deciding what to do with the old building, Good said, hinges on funding. Without it, the building may have to go unused. It's not her first choice, but there just isn't any extra money left over from opening the new building.

"We're constantly looking for ways to raise money," she said. "We knew this was a risk, we knew we would have to break the bank by building the new facility, but we felt we had to take the risk. We felt we had to care of the population we are serving."

Precinct 3 Town Meeting member Ann Marie Ruotolo hopes the building remains in use for the deaf and deaf-mute community.

"I was just driving by it and thinking that I hope they find someone to occupy it," she said recently. "I don't want to see anything happen to the building. It would be terrible if someone razed it."

Town Manager Wayne Marquis may have a solution: an easement across the home's land to the Waters River, giving residents another way to access the waterfront. The home and its board of directors have not wanted to do this for a number of reasons, Marquis said.

"They're concerned about liability and safety and about making sure they hold onto as much as their land as possible," Marquis said recently. "They weren't sure about their expansion plans, so maybe with the new building in place, they'll be open to discussing the possibility of giving the town an easement."

Already, the town has an easement underneath the home's property for sewer and water lines. Granting the town an easement for a portion of the property aboveground, Marquis hopes, would open up land that has been private for more than a century.

Good doesn't want to speak for the trustees, but she said she's not one to turn down funding without first hearing a proposal.

"Who knows what will happen in the future," she said. "I know the town has previously expressed interest. We'll have to see if and when they ask again how everything will work out."

Each morning when Good pulls into the home's driveway, no matter which direction she looks - whether to the right and the Thompson House and the old building or to the left and the new building - she sees something unique, not just to Danvers but to the world.

And when Good walks around the property - whether along the sidewalk connecting Thompson House to the main building, or between this building and the currently-shuttered Riverbank mansion - she, like Helen Keller before her, sees more than the New England Homes for the Deaf; she sees possibility.

© Copyright of CNC and Herald Interactive Advertising Systems, Inc.