Partner Spotlight: Laurie Williams @ Collaborative Community Housing Initiative

Laurie Williams is a trailblazer. She’s a supporter of Arts of Life, and the founder of the Collaborative Community Housing Initiative (CCHI) – a movement working to reshape the landscape of housing for people with disabilities on the North Shore.

The idea for CCHI began halfway across the globe at Kishorit, a vibrant Kibbutz community in Israel centered on inclusive living for people with and without disabilities. Guided by the principle of normalization, members recognize the basic right of every person to live a full life in community and make decisions regarding every aspect of their lives. When Laurie learned about Kishorit, the question surfaced for her: “Why can’t we do something like that here?”

Laurie was acutely aware of the urgent housing crisis in the I/DD community and the need for more inclusive housing. At the same time, this vision was uncharted territory in Illinois, a state that is severely lagging when it comes to housing for people with disabilities.

“I just heard a statistic the other day when we were meeting with the school district – there’s 6,000 individuals right now with IEPs on the North Shore.” Laurie told us, “So if you figure maybe even a quarter of those are going to need supported housing, and imagine that turning over every four years. The need is intense right now, but imagine what it’s going to continue to be.” According to Laurie, this is why the adult I/DD population often ends up confined to their parents’ homes, battling isolation and unproductivity.

With a sense of determination and personal investment, Laurie and her husband Rick started a call to action and the response was overwhelming. There is a huge demand for new and progressive approaches to the housing crisis. Together, family members, government officials, individuals with I/DD, and stakeholders formed what is now CCHI. The collective began to research successful housing communities around the world. They learned about many different housing models for people with disabilities, seniors, unhoused individuals, young adults, and more. According to Laurie, “We really spoke to people everywhere to find out what the model was, who the target audience was, how they financed it, what their wins and losses were so to speak, lessons learned.” Through that process, their plan to shape – mixed housing with a community space on the bottom that can bring people together. Laurie said, “The community space focuses on something that everyone’s interested in, which in our case, was art and music.”

Challenges have arisen along the way. CCHI’s journey began in 2017, and COVID-19 hit within a year of them gaining their 501c3 status. Laurie candidly acknowledges the hurdles, from securing financing to dispelling misconceptions about both affordable housing and disability to a planned development falling through in the 11th hour. Nevertheless, CCHI’s commitment remains unwavering: “We’re committed 100% to it. I think that everyone realizes that this isn’t a problem that’s gonna go away. It’s not about people being in a CCHI building; it’s about people finding the right solutions.”

Through all the challenges CCHI members have faced, their community remains the anchor to their work, and staying connected is of the utmost importance. CCHI families are encouraged to unite, sharing common goals and experiences. One focus has been on organizing programs and events that encourage community involvement. “Volunteering is very important,” Laurie told us. “We want our community to see our families and our members as active, engaged people in the community that can give back just like everybody else”.

Collaborations with other nonprofits also enrich the experiences of community members. “Facilitating different programs with other nonprofits is very important, like Arts of Life,” Laurie shared. “That is a perfect marriage for us. Number one, we know that our community is very interested in living with art and music in a real way, not just in a recreational way. And number two, we have several artists in our group that are very serious about it, and if they can learn how to make money doing that, that would be an amazing feat.”

As the mother of one of those artists, Laurie shared her experiences with her son Zach’s in-home support, underlining how the program allows him to express a different side of himself. “I never hear Zachary so quiet,” she said. “He’s not a quiet person; he’s very animated. He really narrates life. So he’s so incredibly quiet when you’re working together, which is lovely because it means he’s really thinking and processing.” Laurie told us his work with Arts of Life addresses a deeply felt need for respect and professionalism often lacking in their world. “I appreciate the way you guys interact and how you communicate with him,” she said. “There is an expectation of him being a professional, and he sees that, and he lives that. I think that that’s incredibly impressive.”

CCHI has played an essential role in advocating for the development of Arts of Life’s community programs in Highland Park – connecting us to artists and partners who helped get the program off the ground. As their work to build integrated housing continues, our collaborative work has just begun.

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