FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Inside the home of Master Sgt. Ignacio Jimenez, David Poole, Danny Delgado and Wesley Branch are the photos of Margaret “Clair” Clark riding a bicycle.

The roommates didn’t know Clark, who died in 2012, but the space is dedicated in her memory by her brother, Dr. Franklin Clark.

It is part of the Fayetteville Friendship House community, which is approaching its second year and pairs students or young professionals with adults like Clair Clark who have special needs.

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And in December, Dr. Clark made another contribution — $20,000 per year during the next three years — to help subsidize the $450 monthly rent of young professionals or college students in health care, allied health care or human services fields who are willing to be housemates, mentors and friends of adults with special needs.

Jimenez is already one of those mentors who is the first soldier to be part of the community, which is between Broadfoot and Highland avenues, near Highland Presbyterian Church.

He has been in the Army for 14 years and is a graduate student and recruiter assigned to a battalion that helps recruit warrant officers to special operations.

Married during his entire Army career, he is considered a geographical bachelor soldier, as his job requires him to travel periodically.

His wife and baby live in California, where Jimenez said his wife has a family support system.

While searching for local affordable housing, he came across the Fayetteville Friendship House.

“Being able to answer and help and just being able to be there for individuals who maybe don’t have as much experience with life as I have, just being there for them is what I find most rewarding about being here,” Jimenez said.

The young professionals who are roommates with an adult with special needs are not their caregivers but rather are friends who encourage their roommates to develop skills to be able to live independently.

There are three young professionals or students who are assigned to live with one “friend,” an adult with special needs, to make a total of 24 individuals who can live in the Friendship House community.

Jimenez, Delagado and Poole are paired with Wesley Branch, who’s lived at the Fayetteville Friendship House for about a year and three months.

“I think overall, I’ve liked it pretty well,” Branch said. “We’ve had Sunday evening stuff … a fairly small amount of time with other roommates. Socially, my favorite activities have been playing bridge or golf.”

Poole, another one of Branch’s roommates, has been at the Fayetteville Friendship House for about 18 months and is in his third year at Fayetteville State University.

He was originally a criminal justice major but decided to switch to sociology so he can help those with disabilities.

“It’s really given me a passion to do that,” he said. “So being here has definitely changed my life in a real big way … I have a brother who’s autistic, and I’ve lived with him all my life, and so that gave me some experience to come live here, and I realized it better suits me to talk to these people and to relate to them.”

Living next door to Jimenez, Delgado, Branch and Poole is Katie Huddy, who’s lived at Fayetteville Friendship House since July.

Huddy is a licensed mental health counselor at Cape Fear Behavioral Health Center who heard about the program through her sister, a medical student at Methodist University.

“I also have a disability myself so I can kind of relate to them a little bit … ,” said Huddy, who uses forearm crutches to assist with her mobility. “I feel like it’s also very helpful just for me so I can get to understand people with different disabilities, whether it be autism or Down syndrome or (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or anything like that, I can kind of get to understand at least how they deal with it … how they are able to cope … what works.”

The concept for the Fayetteville Friendship House started with Scott Cameron, a local neonatal intensive care doctor who attended Duke University Divinity School and was a part of a similar program when living with a roommate with Down syndrome.

He brought the program to Fayetteville with hopes that the experience will impact those in the health care field to have a better understanding when working with patients who have special needs.

Huddy’s “friend” resident is Brooke Strickland, who has been a friend resident for 18 months.

Since moving in, Strickland has gained experience in scheduling her own appointments and managing her space and works for Fort Bragg Food Services.

“I like rock climbing,” Strickland said of one of the activities she enjoyed with a former roommate and Delgado.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, residents of the Fayetteville Friendship House have adapted to smaller-scale activities, said Tara Hinton, director of regional philanthropy for ServiceSource.

ServiceSource, which provides vocational training, employment programs and services for people with disabilities, helps manage Friendship House Fayetteville as the lessee of land donated by nearby Highland Presbyterian Church.

All residents wear masks if interacting with other friends or young professionals who do not live in their apartment, Hinton said.

Weekly family campus dinners, community dinners, farmers market events and community events are all on hold.

The size of the group interactions are limited, weekly prayer meetings are virtual and the “friend” residents attend a weekly virtual independent skills program through ServiceSource to learn such skills as laundry, cooking or managing finances.

But the sense of community remains as everyone is taking precautions.

Michael Brown is a “friend” and student studying computer science at Fayetteville Technical Community College.

“I’m kind of the baker around here,” said Brown, who specializes in making red velvet, chocolate mint and lemon truffles along with tiramisu and cheesecake.

Michael is one of the original friend residents who’s lived in the community for the past two years and said it’s the first time he’s lived on his own.

“It’s a really rewarding experience — just being able to share my baked goods with the community,” he said.

And Hinton said for the young professionals, it’s been just as much “rewarding.”

Huddy agreed with Hinton.

“I get to not only live on my own for the first time, I also get to help other people like Brooke learn independent living skills and life skills on top of that, as well,” she said. “And you have instant friends when you come here. Everyone’s very supportive and very welcoming, too.”

Jimenez, who thought moving away from California might mean reverting back to being on his own, said he’s gained another bonus family.

“I feel so fulfilled living here,” he said. “Everyone’s great.”

While Hinton said there is a waiting list for “friend” residents who can live at Fayetteville Friendship House for up to four years, there are a couple of spots open for young professionals or students between the ages of 21 to 39 in health care, sociology and human services career fields.

She said there’s a hope that just as the community supported campaigns to build the Fayetteville Friendship House, they’ll step up to match Clark’s grant to help residents afford to live in the space.

She said two former professional residents, Victor Campbell and Chasity Sullivan, are examples of how the community also gains from Friendship House.

Each planned to leave Fayetteville at the end of the two-year program.

Campbell now works for Cape Fear Valley Health and Sullivan works for a private medical practice.

“Their experience at Friendship House changed the trajectory of their future,” she said. “And we benefit as a community because now we have these two great individuals that we were going to lose that are now going to work in our community — giving back, going to our churches … We’re bringing these wonderful individuals here, too, but we’re keeping them because of their experience.”

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