Home work from Foundation up

NEWBURYPORT, MA –For the past nine or so years, Anita Perkins has been teaching people the almost-lost art of knitting.

Those who have been part of her group, the Plum Island Knitters, know that, for Perkins, needles and yarn are more than just the way to a sweater. For Perkins, knitting is something that inspires a sense of calm that contributes to a person’s well being.

And like other quiet and relatively simple pursuits, there are some big life lessons in knitting, if you know where to look. One of the most important things Perkins has learned is that not everything follows a predetermined pattern or plan, and sometimes you have to make it to fit.

And that’s exactly what she did back in 2004, when she started the Katydid Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides a home and support for adults with autism.

“I did it for my daughter, Katy,” says Perkins. “We created a new model based on what we knew worked, and what we wanted.”

And now the Katydid Foundation is getting some serious help from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston and Haverhill Bank, which have awarded the organization $608,000 to buy and upgrade a Haverhill house for autistic adults and their live-in caregivers. The upgraded home will provide housing for up to three residents, as well as training and limited housing for low-income staff members.

Meeting her needs

When Perkins launched the foundation, there weren’t a lot of options for Katy. She was living in a group home, hardly an ideal setting for anyone with autism, a neurological disorder that takes its biggest toll on an individual’s ability to communicate and interact socially. But life for Katy went from barely OK to absolutely unacceptable when the group home staff could no longer help her with the one thing that seemed to be helping her the most, a paper route. It was a small job, but it kept Katy up and moving and out in the community.

Perkins says that when Katy lost her job, she started to regress. Her mother knew Katy had to do something, although, looking back, Perkins says she wasn’t sure what it would be. Now there are services and programs for children diagnosed with autism, but when Katy was born, there was no clear understanding of the disorder or services for those diagnosed with it.

Things improved over time, but when Katy hit adulthood, Perkins discovered she and her daughter were, once again, on the frontier. There were no real services for autistic adults. So Perkins decided she would have to step in and create something to fill that void. And she was going to have to make it to fit.

“I wish I could say I planned it,” says Perkins, who, before becoming a knitting teacher and a foundation director, had enjoyed a successful career as a local newspaper reporter. And reporters sometimes do their best work with deadlines and other pressures hanging over their heads.

Did it for Katy

Perkins took the leap and created the Katydid Foundation and moved her daughter and another resident from the group home into a 14-room house in Haverhill. But creating a program for autistic adults from scratch was no small feat. The state Department of Developmental Services helped get the program off the ground and has been supportive.

But for Perkins, the work hardly ever stopped. The house needed to be reorganized and revamped to accommodate Katy and other residents, as well as the staff. There was a constant storm of paperwork, and while Perkins was grateful for the state funding she received, it was never enough. She started supporting the foundation with the money she earned teaching people how to knit.

Perkins knew it was all worth it when she saw her daughter thriving in her new home. And once Katy was back on her feet, her mother was able to start reaching out to other families who needed help finding homes and programs for their autistic adult children.

Now, with the new grant money, Perkins can take a few more steps.

“This grant means that local services for adults on the autism spectrum will be expanded,” she says. “Not only will we be able to add residents to our Haverhill house, but we also will be able to increase our outreach to families struggling with finding ways to provide permanent, individualized housing options for their disabled loved ones.”

Still, Perkins says the foundation needs a great deal of help. Local contractors and businesses have been volunteering their time and donating services and supplies, but Perkins is hoping more sponsors will find their way to the Haverhill house. For anyone who wants to lend a hand, Perkins has posted a list of things, jobs and supplies needed on the foundation’s Web site, katydidfoundation.org.

And for all those who already have given so much, everyone from Ashley Osborne, a middle school student who spent weeks organizing a major yard sale to raise money for the foundation, to the Plum Island Knitters, who have been a constant source of support, Perkins is deeply grateful.

“Now that we’re here [Haverhill], I sometimes wonder how it all happened,” she says. “You never really know when you are inside the box; you just go, and you just do it.”