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It Takes a Village; Working with Those with Disabilities at LIFE Village

By Kelly Knowles and Jordan Klug

From one tiny house, a community is born. LIFE Village, a local nonprofit currently in the beginning stages of production, has hopes of becoming a lifelong home for those with autism or related disorders as well as for those residents of Boone who want to be part of this community.

Candace Lang, the Vice President and Director of Development of this new initiative, has a long history of working with those with disabilities. Her daughter, Erin, 17, is multiply handicapped, and before Erin was born, Lang worked as a speech therapist for nine years. As Lang’s sister is also a special education teacher, Lang would often help out in her classroom.

Through the years, Lang noticed an issue. She saw that when a child is first diagnosed with something such as autism, there is a web of support of doctors, specialists, and teachers. When the school bus stops coming as children reach the age of 21, however, this support disappears, unlike the diagnosis.

In 2014, when Lang was living in Clayton, North Carolina, family members residing in Boone mentioned Kids with Autism Making Progress in Nature [KAMPN], a free summer camp founded by Jim Taylor. “It started as a summer camp for children with autism and their families to come and relax and find recreation and just get to know other families who are going through the same ups and downs,” said Lang.

Housed on Taylor’s property, KAMPN gives kids the true experience of summer camp, with recreational activities, a playground, tents, nature walks, and fishing. With the camp’s success, Lang decided to meet with Taylor to learn more about starting a nonprofit. During this meeting, they discussed the need for more than just a summer camp, but for a community. Taylor, whose grandson has autism, agreed, and by the end of the meeting, he wanted to jump on board her project as well. “He’s that kind of guy,” Lang said. “He’s been working with children and adults with disabilities for 50 years.”

With this desire to reinstate support and build community, Lang and Taylor set about creating the concept of LIFE Village, an inclusive community for individuals with autism and related disorders, as well as for members of Boone and the larger community who are looking for affordable housing, “where people could live and find jobs … And just be around friends,” said Lang.

LIFE Village, standing for “living innovations for exceptional,” will be a lifelong housing community of tiny homes and cottages, offering housing options, financial planning, volunteer training and employment opportunities, as well as social, emotional and educational services. Some of these buildings will be designed for 24/7 care, while others will be for those who need general support and independence. With a goal of housing 15 residents with disabilities and 38 total residents, LIFE Village’s services will be offered in all seven counties of the High Country. These homes will strictly be for those over the age of 21, or for those transitioning out of high school.

A year and a half ago, Lang moved to Boone to begin footwork for the project. As the only current employee of LIFE Village, she looks for grants and participates in meetings and fundraising. LIFE Village also has a slowly developing board of volunteers, made up of about seven individuals ranging from parents and grandparents, to siblings and other professionals, all affected by autism in some way. These volunteers donate their time and efforts, and as Lang said, “everybody has their special talents, so … everybody kind of has their own area that they focus on.”

Since LIFE Village is still in its beginning stages, two of the greatest needs are businesses that will sponsor needed materials to build homes and purchase land. The board is currently focused on the tiny house project, which is to build the first tiny home that will serve as a startup office. For this project, they are looking for sponsors such as Lowe’s, Home Improvement, and other construction companies. Once the tiny house is built, the committee is hoping to buy at least 10 acres of low-cost land in Boone. They are looking for an area close to town, within range of the Appalcart transportation system, so that individuals have the ability to volunteer, work, and socialize in the Boone community. They are also looking to be in close proximity to the hospital and Appalachian State University [ASU], for the sake of partnerships and internships.

KAMPN currently has a club on the ASU campus, so many volunteers are already sourced from the school. In addition to having a board fellow from ASU on the volunteer committee, one of the biggest partnerships LIFE Village has with ASU is the tiny house project, which offers opportunities for students in the construction and design department. “[These] students aren’t just learning about the construction of the tiny house,” said Lang, “they’re helping the community, so it’s, again, just a win-win for everybody.”

A group in ASU’s Department of Social Work is conducting a needs assessment for LIFE Village. Additionally, LIFE Village hopes to have community gardens and a greenhouse, which would allow them to partner with ASU’s horticulture department as well as Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture. In time, Lang and Taylor would like for KAMPN to be on the grounds of Life Village as a day camp.

Lang hopes that the Boone community can see the benefit of something like LIFE Village and come to them to learn more. Raising funds for the tiny house and land is their current focus, so they will be building committees, asking for volunteers, and looking for board members. To find out more information about LIFE Village, go to their website, www.thelifevillage.net, or call Candace Lang at 919-880-1450.