It all began with bread-baking, two years ago.

Six ingredients: water, flour, salt, yeast, olive oil and honey. It’s a recipe passed down from student leader to student leader of Shalom, a student-led chapel at George Fox University.

Four women: two with disabilities that make it impossible for them to live on their own, and two freshmen, their curiosity piqued both about the bread and the women baking it.

The space was a little tight, which can bother Emily Young sometimes. They met in a tiny on-campus dorm kitchen – more of a kitchenette with barely enough room for four adults to squeeze past each other – where they mixed and kneaded dough before running it to the second-floor kitchenette to bake.

The students are not there as caregivers, but friends. The success of the home is in their complicated yet simple strategy of making space for each other.

Now 31, Young was born with a complicated combination of challenges that impact her hearing, her cognitive development and her musculoskeletal system. She calls it simply “an intellectual disability.”

“It has a lot to do with the brain,” she says. Because her hearing is impaired, Young wears hearing aids when she leaves her house – but her hearing is not always the problem.

“I just have a harder time understanding things,” she says. “Sometimes I have to ask people to repeat themselves, and sometimes it’s not because I didn’t hear them; it’s because I just didn’t understand. I sometimes feel like people will get kind of upset with me when I try to ask them to repeat themselves. And it’s like, ‘I can’t help it. It’s just who I am.’”

But the bread-baking is right up her alley. She enjoys the camaraderie and is happy to mix ingredients, but dislikes the feel of dough under her polished nails.

Katy Strong, on the other hand, delights in the feel of kneading that dough, working in more flour until the stickiness gives way to springy firmness. Strong, 33, was born with Rett syndrome. She hears and understands everything but struggles to make her mouth speak her thoughts. Friends sitting on the couch with her may use pillows to help prop her up when her body starts to slump. Yet she takes care of herself, makes her meals, vacuums and dusts. Those who listen learn to understand her words.

Meghan Donohue, one of the freshman in that kitchenette two years ago, has come to know and love – and live with – Young and Strong, in a place called Friendship House, located a few blocks from campus.

Baking Bread, Building Community

Baking bread for the Tuesday evening chapel on campus, Shalom, has been a ritual since it began. The women of Friendship House joined the tradition three years ago when the home was established in Newberg, and their presence at the chapel now is as expected as the bread itself.

After two years of baking bread together each week, Donohue, a junior social work major, applied to live in the house in the fall of 2019. “I was drawn to deepening these relationships,” she says. “I love these ladies I get to live with and wanted to be part of that. The mission of this house … it really strives to help and integrate these ladies into the Fox community.”

friendship-house02.jpg

From left to right: Friendship House residents Meghan Donohue, Katy Strong, Dani Hillenbrand and Emily Young.

Friendship houses have begun appearing on or near school campuses across the country. Inspired by L’Arche communities, they partner with academic institutions that welcome the residents to live and serve with them. Duke Divinity School hosts a friendship house, as do Vanderbilt Divinity School and others. The house connected to George Fox University is an easy walk from campus.

Dani Hillenbrand, a nursing major, was the fourth member of the house in the fall 2019 semester. “I had met Katy and Emily at Shalom, so I already knew them, and then I came to make bread with them one time last year and was like, ‘I really like this community,’” she says.

She has two nephews on the autism spectrum but had not lived with adults with special needs. “That was a learning curve for me, learning how to communicate and knowing each other’s needs without offending each other, because the communication aspect is really important,” she says.

Communication is usually the most challenging part, and one of the many ways Mark 2 Ministries supports the residents of Friendship House.

No One is in This Alone

Mark 2 Ministries is the nonprofit that established Friendship House in Newberg, connecting with George Fox to help provide the resources necessary to make the house a success. Licensed by the state to work with adults with developmental disabilities, Mark 2 bought and renovated the house to accommodate the needs of two adults with disabilities, plus three students.

They knocked out internal walls to create open gathering spaces – spaces that facilitate the house mission: “Eat together. Pray together. Celebrate together.” Contractors donated labor and others donated supplies, painting the walls in coordinating magnolia colors. And in this space of clean floors, live plants, comfortable furniture and a sign on the wall that reads simply “thankful,” brief interactions become points of connection.

“One thing I really like about Friendship House is it is just that: a house,” says Mandy Lofdahl, on staff with Mark 2. “It is a place where people are living together in friendship, not in a dichotomy of those giving care and those receiving care.

“Most individuals with disabilities don’t get the opportunity to have those kinds of relationships and to work through them and to understand two-way relationships and communication. That’s one of the greatest gifts.”

Friedship House residents

Strong (above) and Young (below) have become ingrained in the George Fox community during their three years at Friendship House. It’s not uncommon to see them at chapel services, football games and dances. They even volunteer at the university’s annual Serve Day.

Friedship House residents

The students are not there as caregivers, but friends. The success of the home is in their complicated yet simple strategy of making space for each other.

Young and Strong thrive with set schedules, which have altered little in their three years at the house. Strong exercises at the pool weekly and has a regular appointment to walk around the neighborhood. Mark 2 staff, on duty every day from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. – often later on chapel nights – accompany both women on these events, and take Young shopping or to have her nails done. Donohue and Hillenbrand have their own full schedules of school, work and commitments.

Yet as friends and housemates, they make space for relationship.

“Here we’re a lot more intentional with what we ask, because small talk isn’t really going to get us anywhere,” Hillenbrand, a junior, says. “It’s not, ‘I’m asking you about your day because I feel like I need to ask a question; I’m asking you because I care and because I want to know what you’ve been up to.’”

“Our communities, I believe, need people with special needs in them, rubbing shoulders with the rest of us, because they make us better. They encourage us, they inspire us, they show us the heart of God.”

As in any home, tension happens.

“It’s not always happy and easy, but it’s just part of life,” Young says. “You have ups and downs, and sometimes you have a hard time with someone.”

“One unforeseen challenge was understanding communication patterns in a house with people who all communicate differently, have different speeds, different levels of communication,” Donohue says. As house resident assistant, Donohue carries her school load while also leading house discussions and planning roommate outings. “It’s hard to navigate sometimes through communication, making sure everybody is included and heard and able to share. But it’s a good thing to learn about living with people and working with people who are maybe not on the same pace as you.”

“Maybe sometimes I just want to go slam my door and just be done,” Young says. But she doesn’t go. She doesn’t slam the door. She sticks with the conversation because she is committed to these relationships.

Strong will pull aside a roommate and ask, “Can we chat?” And once a misunderstanding or hurt feelings are cleared, will say that the problem is now “out the window” or “down the drain” or “given to Jesus.”

While Mark 2 staff are available to help resolve differences – primarily through helping Strong and Young find the words to express their thoughts and emotions – usually the housemates work through challenges on their own.

“We just talk through it as you would with a friend, through something that is a struggle,” Donohue says. “We work on communicating better, sharing feelings with each other and being honest.”

The friendships made at Shalom and other gatherings help the women of Friendship House the same way any friend expects friends to help. The students of George Fox are a community supporting them – friends who listen and validate the challenges of life together.

“I don’t think you really understand the life they’ve gone through until you’ve lived with them,” says Donohue, who serves as student chaplain of Shalom. “Everybody has a challenging life, and they have different struggles than you do. Understanding that everyone has a different perspective helps in general in how you act with all people. It’s not necessarily just people with disabilities.”

Friedship House residents

Like many George Fox students, Donohue and Hillenbrand first learned about Friendship House at a Shalom worship service.

House of Friends

So for three years, the women of Friendship House, along with students they meet at Shalom, have baked bread for chapel every Tuesday evening, playing Spicy Uno while the dough rises. Once baked, they take the bread and go set up for chapel, greeting students as they come, handing out song sheets, smiles and hugs. Friendships are rooted and grow.

They attend another evening chapel on Wednesdays, host a pizza and movie night every Friday, often inviting friends, and reserve Sunday afternoons for the roommates to share a meal and afternoon together. They go to football games, dances and other campus events, and are regulars at trivia night at the store Social Goods in downtown Newberg, where they are known by name.

Young and Strong, sometimes with their housemates and sometimes on their own, have found a number of ways to serve in the community they call their own. They work alongside students on the university’s Serve Day, helping throughout Newberg. They’ve joined James Project, a George Fox group that volunteers every weekend in the community. And they attend dinners on campus, helping set tables beforehand and clearing them after.

Mark 2 hopes to partner with George Fox for three more houses: two for men and one more for women. But first, they’re working to get it right with this one.

“Our communities, I believe, need people with special needs in them, rubbing shoulders with the rest of us, because they make us better,” Lofdahl says. “They encourage us, they inspire us, they show us the heart of God.

“I see people like Meghan who are getting a chance to live with them, and their lives change. Sometimes it isn’t comfortable, but sometimes that’s the place where we’re given opportunity to choose to grow. For Katy and Emily, they’ve developed real relationships. They know that Meghan and Dani genuinely like them, not just want to help them. People at Shalom know their names and ask how they’re doing. Their lives are enriched by relationship. You wouldn’t trade that for anything.”