Thursday, July 28, 2011

Self Advocate, home owner Craig Blackburn

Craig Blackburn.jpg


For years, Craig Blackburn dreamed of getting his own place. And as soon as he learned about A Home of My Own, that dream turned into a goal.

“I was living with my parents, and I was 30 years old,” he said.

Blackburn knew reaching that goal would mean making some big changes in his life: He would have to leave his parents’ house in St. Charles Parish, where he’d lived his whole life, and move to Jefferson Parish. And he’d have to leave the job he had at the Winn-Dixie in Luling where everyone knew him and cared about him.

“I had a lot of friends there,” he said. “They were like my family.”

He wanted to live independently, though, and A Home of My Own could make that happen.

A Home of My Own, a collaborative effort between Jefferson Parish Community Development and the Jefferson Parish Human Services Authority, helps people with developmental disabilities buy their first home. Through HUD, the program provides financial assistance of up to $50,000 for the down payment and closing costs on a house and reduces the mortgage to make home ownership affordable for people with special needs.

“I went to two classes to learn how to buy my own place, and there was a lot of paperwork to fill out,” Blackburn said.

Blackburn, 32, has Down syndrome. He also has determination, a strong work ethic, and a lot of dreams and goals.

“We take people like Craig by the hand and lead them through the program,” Liz Ruth, a housing counselor at Jefferson Parish Community Development, said. “They need the best loan there is out there. We use the lenders who give the best interest rates and the least amount of charges.”

Blackburn had a couple of requirements when he went looking for his new home: It needed to be along the bus route in the Metairie or River Ridge area because he doesn’t drive, and it needed to have a small yard or no yard to maintain.

He found everything he was looking for in a Metairie townhouse community that includes two swimming pools and an on-site exercise room.

“I felt happy the day I got the key to this place,” Blackburn said, when he showed me around his townhouse. “I moved in on May 14, 2010, the day before I turned 31.”

A Home of My Own, which started in the early ’90s, has helped around 40 developmentally disabled people buy a home in Jefferson Parish (not including Kenner, which has a separate Community Development program through HUD). Across the U.S., only about one percent of developmentally disabled people own a home.

“It’s really, really rewarding to help someone like Craig, who works at a minimum wage job and is trying to better himself and take care of himself,” Ruth said.

Blackburn, who got a job at the Winn-Dixie in River Ridge when he was buying his townhouse last year, was able to get a Community Development grant of $50,000. With some additional help from his parents, his down payment was enough to reduce his monthly payment to within 30 percent of his monthly income.

“It’s a wonderful program,” Ruth said. “We’re setting him up to be successful.”

Blackburn is an inspiring success story, and not just because he’s a homeowner.

When he was two months old, he became very ill, and doctors told his mother he probably wouldn’t live to be a year old.

“They didn’t think I was going to make it, and look where I am now,” Blackburn said, smiling. “I’m very happy.”

His mother, Pat Ehrle, could not accept the idea that she might lose her baby boy.

“I called my mom and said, ‘Start the prayers,’” Ehrle said. “All that mattered to me was that my baby lived.”

Having a son with special needs changed Ehrle’s life.

“It made me strong enough to speak up and advocate for Craig,” she said. “I would make sure he was provided with the resources, and then he took over.”

When he was 3 months old, she enrolled him in the Arc of New Orleans’ early intervention program, and when he was 8, she convinced St. Charles Parish school officials that he should move from special education to a regular classroom setting.

“When he was born, his goals were set by us,” Ehrle said. “But he always had that drive, that positive attitude. He always says, ‘Success comes in trying.’”

Blackburn graduated from Hahnville High School in 2000.

“I got a regular high school diploma, and I never failed a grade,” he said.

He was manager of the football team for his four years of high school.

“That was fun,” he said. “All my friends would put me on their shoulders and carry me off the field.”

Blackburn admits that graduating from high school was a challenge. He had to work harder than his friends did, and he had to take the GEE more than once.

“I had a lot of tutoring both inside and outside of school,” he said. “My mom was good at English and my stepdad helped me with math.”

After high school, Blackburn had another goal. He wanted to become a motivational speaker.

Once he got started, there was no stopping him. He has spoken about inclusion and about “Dreams, Visions and Goals” all over Louisiana and around the country, and even in Qatar in the Middle East. He serves on several boards and advisory committees, and the walls of his townhouse are covered with awards he has received.

“I like to spread the message to help families be positive,” he said. “I like to help people have full participation in life.”

Owning his own home is one part of his having “full participation in life.”

After living in his townhouse for more than a year, he says the transition wasn’t too difficult.

“Transferring from working at the Winn-Dixie in Luling to the Winn-Dixie in River Ridge was kind of hard,” he said. “But every day it got easier.”

Blackburn’s move was a transition for his parents, too.

“It wasn’t as difficult as you might think because it felt so right,” his mom said. “All these years Craig said, ‘I want to live independently.’ There was no way we could say, ‘You can’t reach your goal. You can’t live your dream.’”

She and her husband, Ken Ehrle, are grateful for the help they received through A Home of My Own.

“We give such credit to Liz Ruth, and to Brenda Gremillion and Stephanie Campo at the JPHSA (Jefferson Parish Human Services Authority),” she said. “I told them, ‘You really can change somebody’s life.’”

Blackburn has another goal now, one that is elusive.

For four years he has been engaged to Heather Hancock of Oklahoma City, Okla.

“We’d like to get married and have a place to ourselves,” he said.

They met at a National Down Syndrome Association convention in St. Louis nine years ago and have been a couple ever since.

The problem, Blackburn’s mom says, is that they both get their benefits through state programs. If she moved to Louisiana, she would lose hers, and if he moved to Oklahoma, he would lose his.

“It took Craig 14 years to get the waiver in Louisiana,” Ehrle said. “He would have to start all over again.”

So they think about each other all the time, and see each other as often as they can. They'll get together again in August at the next national Down syndrome convention in San Antonio.
In the meantime, they talk at least twice every day.

“We have a long-distance relationship,” Blackburn said, gazing at a photo of his fiancee. “We Skype and we talk on the phone and on Facebook. We have a lot of fun. She’s very sweet.”

To learn more about A Home of My Own in Jefferson Parish, call Liz Ruth at 504.736.6267.

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