Building An Integrated Future On Main Street

Podcast Episode 60  For most of us being part of a community is essential for our wellbeing and often starts where we live. This week’s guest is Jillian Copeland from Main Street, an organization not just building a community but actually building the space where that community can grow and thrive.

However, as Jillian explains, Main Street is much more than about building an apartment block where people with and without additional needs will live. Main Street is about creating opportunities for independent living, for work, for socializing and for learning from each other. The best communities are those where everyone feels an equal part of that community and Main Street is certainly creating that kind of community.

Show Full Transcript
Podcast Transcript

Welcome to episode 60 of the Journey Skills podcast. One of the things I always get from this podcast is hope. Hope that my daughter’s future won’t be the one that I imagined a few years ago before I started doing the research and before it moved into this podcast and the Journey Skills website.

I like to think that one of the reasons you listen is for hope as well but also for inspiration and practical tips and ideas and also to be reminded that you’re not alone in this journey. There are plenty of us facing the same challenges; trying to find answers to questions and having good days and having bad days. I’ve been doing this podcast now for just over two years and sometimes it is hard to find the time to do it. Like all of you, I’m busy and this isn’t my day job but I really feel that the people that I speak to deserve to have their story shared and haven’t found anything like this podcast out there.

This leads me to telling you how much your feedback really means to me and I just wanted to share a comment that was made on Facebook about the last podcast episode which if you haven’t listened was all about being more kind to ourselves. The comment made:

This is great. Well worth listening to. Thank you so much for posting. You will never know how much I needed to hear this today.

I could admit that made me feel very chuffed. So, thank you for all your support. It really does mean a lot.

Anyway, on to what this episode is all about which is housing which is clearly key to independently living. My guest is Jillian Copeland from Main Street which is an inclusive community-centered purpose built residential development where 25% of the apartments are designed and designated for adults with additional needs. Jillian talks us through the process of getting this project up and running and the obvious challenges but she also talks about how it will link into the community and work and social activities so, it’s about much more than just a place to live.

This whole project to me is amazing and should serve as a blueprint of a way to bring together housing, work, community. Jillian also shares her thoughts on how this could be replicated which is really key because I believe that this is the kind of holistic solution that could be a game changer. If I send over the top here it’s because I genuinely love the ideas that this project has; the linking of everything, the inclusivity, the partnerships, community. I just wish I live next door. Anyway, judge for yourself. Let’s hear from Jillian.

DEBRA: Today I am talking to Jillian Copeland who is the chair of Main Street which is an inclusive residential development just outside Washington DC in the US. Welcome, Jillian.

JILLIAN: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

DEBRA: Can you just tell me a little bit about yourself first of all but then also about what Main Street is actually all about?

JILLIAN: Of course. So, I’m a mom, first and foremost. I have four sons and my almost 20-year-old Nicol was born with several challenges, medical and as we learned later, many learning and other special needs. As he’s grown, my husband and I have really tried to provide optimal environments for him to learn and thrive and we have found that at times that’s been very difficult to be in inclusive environments where things are created or at least people really have an understanding about his needs.

So, in about 2007, we created a school for Nicol right outside of the DC area and he went to school there for about 6 years and he did really well. I believe he created a sense of self. He was supported by all of these unbelievable staff members who really understood his and all of the other the students’ challenges, disabilities and abilities. (Sorry for the pings that you might hear by the way. That’s on my end) And I’ve been really just really looking at what are the things that could provide Nicol with the optimal settings for him to thrive in life?

So, after he graduated from our school which is called the Diener School, we’ve started looking at what his life would look like as he became an adult and we started researching places around the country where there are living environments, working environments and I think globally, it’s quite dismal, right? Because in most places, as adults with disabilities turned 21, they enter this cliff, they lose entitlements at least in the US, you lose your state entitlements. So, your opportunities for learning and development, socialization, everything is cut off. And what we’re finding here is that adults with disabilities and their caregivers are very disenfranchised from community. They’re very disconnected. And therefore, they become anxious and depressed and lonely as to their caregivers.

So, after researching and interviewing several families and creating surveys to look at really how people want to live, we created an option, a solution we feel, called Main Street. Main Street is a 70-unit apartment building where 25% of the units are designed and designated for adults with disabilities. 75% of all of the units are affordable. It is located in the heart of a town center that’s in a suburb of Washington DC in Rockville Maryland. We are 500 feet from metro, retail, restaurants, government buildings, law enforcement, firefighting. You know, just everything is around the corner. So, there’s much that is walkable. There are many places for employment as that is a big issue.

Main Street will serve as a community center as a hub for not just residents who live in Main Street, for the 35 or 40 people who live there, out of the 150 people that will live there, 35 to 40 will have disabilities or varying needs. But we also have this community center space which is really the signature that kind of the capstone of Main Street which will be offered to all Main Street members and anyone can be a member.

It’s an inclusive, affordable, sustainable program that offers memberships to anybody who wants to join us. We will have a teaching kitchen and a multi-media room and a classroom and a coffee shop and lots of different spaces for people to join us to belong, to become a part of our community. We will have classes and Super Bowl parties and book clubs and pizza nights and bingo and vocational support and social support and opportunities for wellness. So, nutritional classes, cooking classes, fitness opportunities, yoga. Things like that. So, whether you live in the building or you’re a member of Main Street, it’s a place for one and all to come, to join together, to learn, to grow, to socialize, to be a part of community.

DEBRA: What were some of the challenges that you had getting this project off the ground?

JILLIAN: I think the challenge for something like this always really starts with money because if you don’t have the financing for the project, you can’t make it happen. For us, we went to the state of Maryland and said, “This is ongoing issue, it’s going to become an epidemic with the staggering numbers of people who are becoming adults that are disabled and they’re not finding meaningful employment. In our area 50% of people with disabilities are employed which is pathetic but one of the higher numbers I could find around the country. They’re going to need a place to live and our caregivers are aging and we all have a stake in the game. We all have a responsibility.”

When we go to visit people to talk about Main Street, we talk about not only the growing need for people to have a quality life but that it’s better for economic development anyway for people to be productive, for people to join the community, for people to be working side by side with each other. So, I think everybody agrees and we went to the state and we asked for money. We received a loan income housing tax credit which was a substantial number for us to be able to do, create Main Street. We went to friends and family, we went to donors, we raised the money needed.

Some of our pillars for Main Street were affordability, inclusivity and sustainability and that was really part of the project to keep these apartments and our membership prices low so that people can afford to live independently and be a part of our membership. So, money is probably the biggest hurdle. Once we received tax credits, once we went to the Department of Health and Human Services, we received a couple million dollars from them.

So, after that, I would say after the money hurdle we accomplished that, it was also hearings in the city of Rockville. Lots of kind of not-in-my-backyard neighbours protested and opposed us which I think is normal for any development. We had to kind of get through five hearings, that was a little bit tough. And then I think the biggest hurdle which is part of our mission is really to educate to help this destigmatize this mindset about people with disabilities and so I think that’s an ongoing hurdle for all of us, globally; allowing people to see how people with disabilities are productive, how they increase productivity in the workplace, how they create an opportunity for people to learn and for us kind of a human rights issue, an inequality issue. And so, that is I think going to continue to be part of the hurdle of educating people to understand this and that is part of our mission. So overall, I think those have been the biggest challenges.

DEBRA: Just a little bit about the money side of it then, you’ve got the funding and obviously, as I understand, this is a build from scratch, isn’t it? From the ground up?


DEBRA: So long-term, how do you plan to continue to sustain in terms of money?

JILLIAN: So, we will have a couple million dollars of debt on the building. We foresee the revenue from rent from the apartments, from the coffee shop that will be on the ground floor and from our membership and from fundraising will all go into our operational budget and we think that we’ll have a little bit to raise every year probably less than a hundred thousand dollars which in this area is really not hard to raise. We have several thoughtful, compassionate community members here. We also going to go to our county to say, “Hey, we’re providing a service that you aren’t and we’re going to need some money to sustain our program over time.” So, we think that is really going to be the model in terms of sustainability, long term.

DEBRA: How do people get to live in in this complex?

JILLIAN: So, there are 18 units out of 70 that are designed and designated for adults with disabilities and we will open up the application process about 3 or 4 months prior to the building opening which will most likely be in June of 2020. I think it’s going to be first come first serve. So, we have these fair housing laws so that means that anybody who applies and can apply first and meet the criteria to live in Main Street which means they cannot have higher than a certain adjusted median income and the average median income which keeps it affordable.

There are also some other restrictions if someone is self-injurious or could be harmful to someone else, they’re probably not going be a good candidate to live at Main Street. So, if they meet the criteria and they’ve applied first, they’re going to be the ones to get in. That’s how it works.

DEBRA: In terms of the affordability for people who don’t have additional needs, how does that work?

JILLIAN: It’s really the same for people with disabilities or if they don’t. So, 75% of the units that are affordable. There are a handful of those that people cannot make above 30% adjusted median income which in this area is around $30,000. There are several units at are 50% and then there are several that are 60%. So, if you qualify, your salary doesn’t exceed those numbers, you qualify to live there.

DEBRA: What do you see are the main benefits of doing this kind of inclusive where you’ve got people with additional needs and people without additional needs?

JILLIAN: I think it feels more organic. I think through meeting and interviewing several adults with disabilities and their families that many people with disabilities really shine and thrive when they’re in community and they’re in an organic, natural, real community.

DEBRA: You mentioned before about membership, what is that mean being a member of Main Street, what does that involve?

JILLIAN: Currently being a member of Main Street allows you to receive our monthly e-blast which share not only project updates from Main Street, they highlight our events and they create sort of a calendar of all these events going on in our area for people who are interested. It might be social events, educational events, opportunities for employment and we highlight different members in different professionals. So everyone is our area is really – the design of the e-blast is really to connect our community professionals who work with adults with disabilities, adults who have disabilities, families, therapeutic services, things like that.

And then, we have monthly events and most of them are free to members. Some have a small fee. We do movie nights and meet ups, breakfasts and happy hours and coffees and educational opportunities for our professional members, for our individual members and our family members. So, we have lots of different sharing, getting to know each other, networking, learning together. We’re already doing that. We have a housing panel for adults who are looking to apply for housing vouchers or waivers in our county. So, we offer different kinds of programs now and they’re all based on member preferences and needs.

DEBRA: So, it’s really a community center with a membership model behind it?

JILLIAN: Correct. And now, we don’t have a physical space so we’re using our local Jewish community center and we’re also using different spaces around our county, different people offer their homes up for events for us which have been great. So, lots of different people, lots of different places around the county we’re meeting and it really doesn’t matter where we are because it’s just really about building community and enjoying each other, learning with each other and that’s what we’re doing already.

DEBRA: And that will be enhanced, I assume, once the building is finished?

JILLIAN: We foresee in our vision Main Street where there are programs and structured and unstructured things happening every day. 7, 8, 9, 10 things a day. It could be a lunch and learn, it could be come for coffee in the morning, go meet us for a walk around Rockville around eight o’clock in the morning, could be a yoga class, or a cooking class or you know, a communal dinner that we help cook together every night, things like that.

DEBRA: In terms of the work side of this, you mentioned the coffee shop, so will that be staffed by people with additional needs?

JILLIAN: We are hoping that we are going to partner with someone on the coffee shop and we’re also working with Kennedy Krieger, they’re going to be renting part of our space. They are a school for kids and young adults with challenges and now they have started a core program which is a transition vocational program. They will be in the building they will be assisting people in the coffee shop. My vision is people with disabilities and without disabilities will be working in the coffee shop side by side.

DEBRA: It seems to me that there is quite a lot of administration here in terms of people within the apartments having additional needs, what kind of support do they get if they need support for day-to-day things, how do they get support?

JILLIAN: Well, Main Street is not a service provider so we don’t provide one to one support for people but we will have people, Main Street staff on the floor (we’re calling it ‘The Floor’ the ground floor for all of our members when they come in). In terms of people living in apartments or membership, we kind of have a mantra which is you bring your own independence with you. If that means you need a caregiver to help you live independently, then you get a two bedroom or if it means you need a family member that’s going to be with you, you live with your family member. If it means you need, you know, someone to come with you to a yoga class, to help you physically access that class, then that’s your prerogative.

We will have floaters and extra support on the floor to help people but not anything in terms of one to one. As far as living, we will have 3 or 4 community inclusion coordinators and they will be living at Main Street and they will be kind of this extra safety net. They can provide 8 to 10 hours per person a week if you need their support.

So, if it’s someone that’s living there that needs some help with executive functioning skills; maybe paying bills, maybe looking at organizing their week, making sure that they’ve taken their meds in the morning and night, maybe being a conduit between their personal support and their family members. That’s what an inclusion coordinator will help them do, organize and be more included in the community and that’s really the job but again it’s not one to one support and it will be fee-based.

DEBRA: Will there be links with local employers? You mentioned partnerships with a coffee shop, are you looking to expand that to other links so that potentially people can work locally and live in the building?

JILLIAN: Two things that we’re doing with that. One, reaching out to all the retailers and restaurateurs and owners and government in Rockville which is very walkable that were all within a couple blocks of Main Street and we’re asking them “Partner with us. What kind of internships you offer? Let us come in and train and help you and provide job assistance and coaching and vocational supports.” So that’s one thing.

The second is we already have 90 partners, professional partners that we’re working with currently. So, we’re kind of educating them on how do you work with people with disabilities, how do you provide supports. That has already started. That ball is already rolling for us which has been incredible.

DEBRA: So, you mentioned that the building isn’t going to be finished until 2020, once that’s finished, are you looking to expand to other towns or will you have a system that you can give to other people?

JILLIAN: That’s very important for us, that’s really part of our mission is replicating this in different ways. We are working with people in northern Virginia locally and Minnesota, Chicago, Florida. Lots of people around the country who are working with us or are seeking our assistance and guidance which we are doing, there are all different kinds of models which we love some are co-housing. So, all different kinds of models to create different opportunities for people with different needs and interests.

We also are coming up with a how-to guide, a manual on how we did this, kind of a print version to share with people as well. And if people want to create a Main Street and use our assistance more frequently, we’ll have some sort of licensing agreement with them to help them create a Main Street.

DEBRA: Without wanting to take away from the manual, is there some top tips that you would give people if they’re thinking of doing something similar?

JILLIAN: The first is gather your community. Bring people together, create a volunteer database with the names and contact information of all people who are interested, mostly people who have a stake in the game which is a lot of people with kids. And I would add in that database what their skill sets are, so lawyers and graphic designers and community activist and organizer.

Start creating a database of people interested, their contact info and what they are good at, how they are willing to help. From that, I would probably start if you have enough interest and you think you can make this thing happen, maybe start a non-profit at that point, get people together, create a name for yourself, go out to community and have advance and build your community together and then, it kind of snowballs from there. So that would be this building community, gathering people and creating a database. I think is the best way to start.

DEBRA: For you personally, how has it benefited you and your son’s life being involved in something like this?

JILLIAN: It has benefited us in multiple ways. In the last year and a half, my son has had some struggles with medical, you know, health issues and some anxiety. It has been a challenge for us and we take it day by day but I think in the back of our minds, I don’t know about my son, but for my husband and I we have hope that he is going to live this quality, meaningful, passionate, purposeful life.

It helps us get through the day. Having this hope and hearing from other people that they are now have hope that their kids, their young adults are going to have a life like Nicol, it fulfils us so it’s been a wonderful project, not only in the sense that it gives us hope, but it gives our community hope and the community wrap around and the support we have felt from generous donors and people giving their time and energy and people wanting to be a part of this inclusive community has really been inspiring.

DEBRA: Jillian, thank you so much for your time.

JILLIAN: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

DEBRA: Key takeaway? Sometimes, you actually need to start something from the beginning; be that a community or an actual building.

Main Street
Main Street on Facebook

Please subscribe to this podcast and if you have a story you would like to share I would love to hear from you just email

Please Review Us On iTunes

If you liked this podcast and would like to help us, please do the 1, 2, 3:
(1) Click Review on iTunes (2) Click ‘View in Itunes’; and (3) Click on ‘Ratings and Reviews’ (just to the right of ‘Details’) and leave a review.