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Adams School Condos become new home for Boston Marathon bombing survivor

Sitting on the couch in her new living room at the Adams School Condominiums, Karen McWatters talks about the blue and green rug underfoot – her first purchase for her new home. She built the room around its ocean-like hues, adding green pillows and sea-glass colored vases and candle holders. The whale décor scattered around the condo is a coincidence, she says – her new husband, Kevin, is a fan of the Hartford Whalers ice hockey team, as evidenced by the two ball caps that have prominent (if begrudging, on her part) placement on the console table.

She explains that her recovery has hit a bump, and she needs another surgery to walk comfortably on her prosthetic leg. She faces weeks of post-surgery recovery in a wheelchair. She’s all the more thankful now for her new home, which is fully handicap-accessible.

No matter their provenance, the nautical touches seem right at home in the Munjoy Hill condo, where bay windows afford a glimpse of the ocean. Karen closed on the condo last August, and she’s looking forward to walking down to the ocean this summer. Even though it’s a short walk, completing it would be a milestone for her since she lost her left leg in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

“I wanted to just have my life now,” she says. “It’s like, I know I have this place, and I’m all set. I don’t have to worry, and it’s a huge thing not to have to worry. I can just do what I’ve got to do to get better.”

Searching for a new home

Before the bombing, Karen (whose last name was Rand at the time) and Kevin were living in Massachusetts but looking for a summer home in Old Orchard Beach where they could stay while visiting family. But after the bombing, they realized they needed a year-round home that was handicap accessible.

But it was hard to find that kind of place in Old Orchard Beach, and the search took them further and further away from the center of town. “I’d feel like a prisoner stuck in my house, I couldn’t go anywhere,” she said. Karen and Kevin ultimately decided they needed to look elsewhere.

Their search led them to Portland, where “it was a challenge to find an affordable place, and also handicap-accessible.” When the Adams School Condominiums came on the market, her realtor showed her the listing and urged her to look at it before it sold. Kevin convinced her to drive by just to see it on a Friday afternoon: “He said, ‘Let’s go,’ we pulled into the lot and didn’t even get out of the car. I called my realtor and said, ‘Put in an offer,’” Karen recalls.

Karen and Kevin at the closing of their condo

“From the day I walked through the front door I haven’t regretted it,” she says. “I’m so grateful and so happy to be able to come here and just recuperate – it’s exactly what I needed.”

From her condo, Karen can easily get herself to local shops and restaurants, like Hilltop Coffee, Rosemont Market and The Front Room. And she’s grateful for the new support system she’s found in her neighbors. “They all watch out for me, they know my story. It’s like its own little community.”

The 16 townhouse-style Adams School Condos sit at the corner of Moody, Wilson and Vesper streets in Portland’s desirable Munjoy Hill neighborhood, where rising property values have become increasingly unaffordable to many. Priced below market rate for similar properties and available only to buyers making no more than 120% of the area median income, the Adams School Condos provide homeownership opportunities on the Hill that are affordable to people like Karen.

Moving forward

A Westbrook native, Karen previously spent a couple years living on Munjoy Hill, not far from her new place, while working for Standish Telephone. She went on to become an executive assistance for a chef in Massachusetts, a job she loved. She loved living in Cambridge and “became a city girl,” she says, selling her car and walking everywhere.

On Patriots’ Day 2013, she was at the Boston Marathon cheering on her then-boyfriend Kevin when the bombing happened. It cost her more than her leg. Her best friend, Krystle, did not survive.

“To have everything change in a minute was really a shock,” she says.

She doesn’t like to talk about the bombing or losing her friend. Rather, she likes to focus on moving forward and turning the experience into something positive, like helping others who face similar challenges.

A chance conversation in a furniture store last fall led Karen and her husband to learn about Estefania, a 13-year-old girl from El Salvador who lost one leg and was in danger of losing the other after she was hit by a drag-racer. Karen and Kevin arranged for her to receive free surgeries at Shriners Children’s Hospital in Boston, as well as a donated prosthetic leg from Next Step Bionics, which provided Karen with her prosthetic. The couple also raised $15,000 to pay for airfare and living expenses to allow Estefania and her mother to come to Boston for her treatment.

Since Estefania arrived in February, Karen has visited her many times and was there when she took her first steps on her new prosthetic. Also there was ESPN, which profiled Karen and her work with Estefania one year after the bombing.

Although they don’t share a common language, the bond between Karen and Estefania is obvious. Karen flips through photos she’s taken of the teenager and grins. “I just think she’s adorable.”

Speaking Spanish, Estefania told ESPN, “It makes me happy because we have gone through the same thing. And I love that she is always smiling. I am so grateful to her. I love her, and she is my angel.”

Karen plans to continue working with Shriners Hospital to find other children like Estefania in need of medical care, and she’s also volunteered her time with the Red Cross to promote blood drives and fundraisers. The work has helped Karen stay busy and positive during times when she’s struggled in her recovery.

And, despite it all, Karen is remarkably positive. She’s glad to be back in Maine and close to her mother, friends, siblings and one of her two adult sons. She’s happy to be a newlywed, having married Kevin in March at Cambridge City Hall. And she’s looking forward to the day when she can once again walk to the Old Port, or even get back on her bicycle.

“It’s strange how your life changes,” she says. “In spite of the bad thing that happened to me, I’m happy. I’m married, I’m in a new place I love. I can’t complain about anything, that’s for sure.”


By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

Residents’ collections are inspiration for Maine College of Art students

Update: The artwork created through this partnership will be featured as part of Portland’s First Friday Art Walk on Feb. 7 at Oak Street Lofts! Bayside East residents will be at Oak Street Lofts to share the special objects that inspired the artwork created by the students. We hope to see you at 72 Oak Street from 5-8 p.m.!


Behind each piece of artwork hanging in the community room at Bayside East is a story. There’s the story of the treasures brought home by a young man stationed overseas, or the story of a cultural tradition transplanted in a new community. And there’s the simple story of preserving a community’s history through newspaper clippings.

Looking at the 11 prints on the walls, the stories might not be apparent. But for the residents of the Portland senior community, the artwork represents memories of cherished items collected over the years, as seen through the eyes of local art students.

A Bayside East resident shows Maine College of Art students an item he’s collected

From September to December, a class of Maine College of Art students spent several hours talking with a group of residents of Bayside East and seeing first-hand the objects that hold special meaning for them. Residents brought odds and ends gathered over the years, like collections of old newspaper clippings, gifts given to them by loved ones, and even colorful traditional African clothing made by hand.

Through stories and questions, the students learned why these objects were so important to their owners. Then, they created original prints using the objects and stories as influence.

The semester-long project wrapped up in December with a potluck party at the property. The students unveiled their art to the residents and talked about their process. Each student made multiple prints so that the residents could also hang one in their apartment.

One of the residents, Bill, had showed students a geisha doll he’s had for over four decades, purchased overseas when he was serving in the Navy. The doll became a source of inspiration for one student, who made a black-and-white print of its likeness that now hangs in the community room kitchen.

“My 45-year-old gal – it’s nice to see her out,” said Bill.

This partnership is just one way Avesta has been exploring community partnerships to help enhance our residents’ sense of home through art. The importance of art goes beyond aesthetics – it’s a vital part of creating a sense of community and making our residents feel at home.

Partnerships with other organizations also strengthen relationships between our residents and members of the larger community, creating connections that can have a lasting impact. The residents visited the students in their studio to see first-hand how printmaking is done. They also got a personalized tour of the college’s facilities on Congress Street, which was especially meaningful for one resident, who used to work in the building back when it was the Porteous department store.

“It’s community development for both, for us and for (Maine College of Art),” said Bill of the project. “What it brings to the room is what we were looking for. This is extremely nice to have.”

Kate, a student, said they were all initially nervous about leaving the classroom and “stepping out of our comfort zone,” but those feelings quickly dissipated as they spent more time with the residents. “We had a really fun time, they were interested people we wouldn’t normally interact with,” she said. “They were fun to talk with – they always had something interesting to say.

“Every time you have students get out somewhere else, it’s beneficial to your art,” she added.

Rod, one of the residents, said the opportunity to interact with young people held more meaning for him now that he’s getting older and most of his own children have moved away. “Getting to know them has been really great. They’re obviously a really great bunch of kids,” he said. “I think programs like this are really great — this way, you don’t just house older people and forget about them.”

The connection that developed between the residents and the students was great to see, and I’d like to thank Professor Pilar Nadal and her students for enhancing the lives of our residents through art. And a big thank-you to Bill, Phil, Doug, Rod and the other residents who participated in this project and shared their time, energy and hospitality.

Avesta looks forward to working with the Maine College of Art to repeat the program with another group of residents next fall.

* Thank you to Pilar and her students for providing some of the photos for this blog post.


By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

‘We’re becoming family’: Event celebrates growing Stonecrest community

It was a perfect fall day last Friday to celebrate the opening of 25 new apartments for seniors and the disabled in Standish. While the apartments at Stonecrest II were completed in March, we like to hold off on a celebration until they are full or nearly full, so the residents can be part of the event as well.

This grand opening was much different than other grand openings we’ve had in the past. First, we didn’t even call it a grand opening, but rather a Harvest Luncheon and Community Celebration. We asked residents of Stonecrest I and Stonecrest II to invite their families and to provide their feedback on what kind of event they wanted to have. We invited local officials like Sen. Gary Plummer and Town Councilor Lynn Olson to join us and get to know the residents. We deepened our connection to the Standish community by inviting the Bonny Eagle High School Jazz Combo and Select Chorus to perform.

We didn’t want the focus of this event to be on Avesta or the development of the project, but rather the residents and their community. One of the residents, Norman, served as the MC and kept everyone smiling with his jokes and heartfelt words about his community. Two of his neighbors stood up to talk about why living at Stonecrest was important to them. Other residents shared their stories in writing, describing what the Stonecrest community means to them on cards that were displayed at the event.

“Stonecrest gave me a home that is safe and clean, and friends that make me feel good every day,” said one resident. “And a real sense of community, to share our stories, our ups and downs.”

“After five years without a home of my own, Stonecrest has given me a roof over my head that I can call ‘home,’” wrote another resident. “I really want to thank everyone for the friendships we’re developing!”

All these stories had common themes: a sense of safety, support from the community, a willingness to help each other. I can attest to the residents’ willingness to help, as I was surprised and delighted when several of them came out to help set up the tables and decorations for the event! They told me they were happy to do it, and I could see that they truly were. After the event, they literally opened their homes to us, offering tours of their apartments to visitors and guests who wanted to take a peek.

I’m very appreciative to the residents for their help and their hospitality. And I’d like to offer a special thanks to Norman for serving as the event’s host and for sharing what the Stonecrest community means to him. “To face aging with a community of caring adults gives great comfort to us,” he told the crowd. “The greatest meaning for us is the friends we have made. We’re becoming ‘family’ and that’s a real good feeling.”

Read more about the event and watch video at the Bangor Daily News website.

And read about the community garden at Stonecrest here.


By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

Community gardening improves quality of life for seniors in Raymond

This is part one of a three-part series on community gardens at Avesta properties.

Gardening is a newfound passion for Benny. He had a small garden years ago but said he gave up on it after his wife died in 1983. A former Portland cab driver, Benny has lived at Avesta’s Jordan Bay Place, a housing community for people 62+ in Raymond, for six years but didn’t get involved in the community garden until last year.

And now he’s hooked.

From left, Benny, Michial and Junior talk about their community garden plans

He visits the garden “a dozen times a day” and half-jokingly admits to singing to the plants. “I didn’t think I’d get into it this much,” he says.

Benny is one of a handful of residents at Jordan Bay who have thrown themselves into the community garden. On a recent overcast day, the residents were out surveying the garden with Michial Russell, the farm manager for Pearson’s Town Farm at Saint Joseph’s College. Michial has been helping the residents double the size of their garden this year, thanks to a $400 grant from Kitchen Gardeners International, a Scarborough-based nonprofit. The grant provided the funding for four new raised beds, which Michial helped the residents build.

“It’s part of our commitment to helping people,” Michial says. “I enjoy getting out and helping people get going and eat better.”

Benny and his neighbors list off this year’s crops: squash, green peppers, tomatoes, beans, cauliflower, radishes, beets, cantaloupe and herbs, to name a few. Residents who are interested in gardening divvy up space in the beds volunteer their time and skills growing and harvesting the fruits and veggies. They share their harvest with their neighbors by putting it in a basket in the community room.

“It keeps us busy,” Benny says about the garden. “It’s great for conversation. People are constantly talking about it and what’s going on out here.”

As he surveys the garden, Benny talks about the A-frames he built last year for the cucumbers, and points out the seaweed he’s using as fertilizer. His gardening success is the result of techniques and tips he’s gleaned from YouTube, like using bars of soap dangling from plant stakes to ward off critters.

For Junior, another Jordan Bay resident, gardening is an old habit. He worked on a farm for most of his life, whether it was his grandparents’ farm, the Watkins farm in Casco or the 50-acre cattle farm he owned for 25 years.

For both Junior and Benny, the garden is more than a hobby – it’s a way to stay healthy. Working in the garden provided Benny a push to take on more physical activity; both he and Junior take daily 4-5 mile walks. Benny’s health conditions – diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol – have improved or disappeared altogether through his commitment to the garden.

“The garden is my exercise.”


By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

Community focus at Oak Street Lofts show for First Friday Art Walk

It’s the first Friday of the month, which means the art gallery at Oak Street Lofts in Portland is open to the public tonight for First Friday Art Walk. This month, we’re featuring the artwork made by children at several of our properties, including Pearl Place I and II in Portland and North Street in Westbrook.

We held several art-making events at the properties, where we asked children to create art on the theme of what community means to them. The children made collages, paintings and drawings depicting some familiar community landmarks, like Deering Oaks Park and Reiche Community School, as well as their families, friends and neighborhoods.

The children’s work is juxtaposed with art made by residents of the Marshwood Center, a skilled nursing facility in Lewiston. Their work debuted last month, and several of the artists came to Portland for the opening on June 7. Their excitement at seeing their work hanging in a gallery was evident as they studied the walls of framed paintings, and their family members were there to share in the excitement as well.

The show, entitled “Late Works,” is the result of a unique partnership between the center and Oak Street Lofts. Since April, the Marshwood Center has been holding weekly painting classes run by Jeannine, the center’s housekeeper and a lifelong painter. Angela Mastrella, recreation director at the Marshwood Center, said the classes have had a positive impact on residents and provided a creative outlet for those who thought their painting days were behind them. You can read more about the program in the Sun Journal.

Michelle, a resident at Oak Street Lofts, happened to see the artwork on display in the center when she was there visiting her grandmother. She approached the center about a gallery showing and served as curator. Michelle joined the residents at the opening in June, lifting a glass of sparkling cider to toast to their accomplishments.

Some of the work made by the Marshwood residents will be on display tonight as well, so if you missed it last month, you still have a chance to see it.

photo (10)Michelle, herself a potter, has more than one connection to tonight’s show. She also volunteered her time with the children to help them produce their artwork.

Including an art gallery in Oak Street Lofts was a first for Avesta. Since the building opened in January 2012, about 30 artists have shown their work there. The gallery space is booked through November, and some months in 2014 are also reserved.

We’ve been happy to see the residents so excited to use the gallery, and we’re pleased to see such interesting collaborations evolve. These kinds of connections are what communities are built on — and as the children’s artwork demonstrates, community is pretty powerful, no matter how you interpret it.

Stop by 72 Oak Street from 5-8 p.m. tonight to see the show.


By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

Celebrating Edith, Avesta’s oldest resident

At the age of 102, Edith Libby is the oldest resident at all of Avesta’s 68 properties. She’s lived at New Marblehead North in Windham since it opened in 1989, and has outlived her husband, her son and her siblings. We asked Edith to share her story with us last year when she turned 101. She told us about leaving her hometown of Rumford despite her parents’ wishes, living on crackers and marshmallows through the Great Depression, and supporting her family after her husband was injured at work.

Now she spends lots of time knitting. It began as a way to make money, and then became a way for her to give back. She’s donated knit clothing to newborns and patients undergoing chemotherapy at Mercy Hospital, for which she received two Governor’s Service Awards.

On Tuesday, Edith was one of six New Marblehead residents who are 90 and older honored with a birthday celebration. The community’s Friendship Club — a group of residents who organize activities — decorated the community room with flowers cut from their gardens and organized a lunch of finger sandwiches, chips, cake and ice cream. Each 90+-year-old received a card and a plant. Three of those six people were able to attend the luncheon in their honor along with a guest.

They also shared their advice for a long life, including “Keep busy,” “have fun,” and “just don’t worry about everything.”

While Edith wasn’t able to attend the luncheon, she was able to receive a plaque commemorating her as Avesta’s oldest resident. The plaque will hang in the New Marblehead community room. Edith was still keeping busy on Tuesday, teaching a visitor how to knit and knitting a scarf herself that she planned to give to a friend — thinking of others as she always has.

By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

Unity Gardens community a canvas for resident artist

Sharon Cleaves has made her mark on Unity Gardens. The hallways of the Windham building are lined with her work, mostly pastoral scenes and coastal settings: lighthouses on grassy or rocky coasts; chickadees on moonlit birch trees; and rustic farmhouses, like the one she used to own on the Presumpscot River in Falmouth. She even paints the occasional cowboy.

Upwards of 100 of Sharon’s paintings hang in Unity Gardens, as well as several other Avesta properties in the Windham area. She made sure her favorites were hung on the second-floor hallway outside her apartment, with little cards tucked into the frame that read “not for sale.”

“I love to keep busy,” she says. “I’ve been painting all my life, almost 70 years.”

Sharon’s work now adorns one more spot in Unity Gardens: the elevator door. She recently completed an intricate garden scene that greets residents and visitors alike when they arrive at the elevator.

The painting features a blossom-covered trellis opening to a flower-filled garden, where ladies in pastel-hued dresses and hats — and one dapper fellow in the background — stroll. The detail on the painting is remarkable, from the tiny pink and white blossoms to the bows and lace on the ladies’ dresses and parasols.

The idea to turn the elevator door into a work of art was a “joint effort,” says Sharon. Senior Maintenance Technician Larry Sawyer first suggested it. “He said, ‘The elevator door needs to be repainted – do you know where I’m going from here?’” Sharon recalls. Kim Munro, the Resident Services Coordinator, came up with the subject matter. Sharon was more than willing to lend her talent to the project. “I don’t mind at all, I love doing it.”

She sketched the scene on a piece of paper before getting to work on the door. It took her five days to finish the painting, working from morning to mid-afternoon. The piece was so large she had to work on it in the building’s electrical room, where neighbors would stop by to see her progress as they took out their trash. When the painting was finished, Larry sealed it to keep it safe from scratches and scuffmarks.

The door has been a hit with residents. ‘Everyone has been very kind and complimentary,” says Sharon. “It gives them something to talk about and enjoy.”

Since finishing the elevator door, Sharon — who was the first person to move into Unity Gardens when it opened in 2006 — has already finished another piece for the property, an idyllic scene of horses running through the waves. The painting will hang in the community room.

“Painting is a gift. What good is it if you can’t spread it around and share it with people?”

By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

Seniors enjoy a chance to eat and socialize at Community Cafe

The residents of Park Street School, a community for seniors in Kennebunk, admit to being a social bunch. They hold daily card games in the building’s large community space and convene regular cribbage games.

Starting in January, Park Street School also began hosting monthly Community Cafes, a program of Southern Maine Agency on Aging that provides people ages 60 and over a regular chance to meet, talk and enjoy a healthy lunch. The program is offered in Kennebunk the first Friday of every month and is open to all seniors in the area.

In February, about 35 people filled the tables decorated for Valentine’s Day to enjoy a meal of meatloaf, vegetables, rolls and Boston cream pie. Guests chatted about their families, books they’ve read and their favorite restaurants in Kennebunk. Guests that day included a woman who worked as a secretary at the school for seven years and was excited to be back in the building. Park Street School resident Joan entertained the group with songs by Patsy Cline and Neil Diamond.

Ann MacAusland, an assessor specialist for SMAA, runs the program but relies on the help of volunteer Park Street School residents like Barbara, herself a recipient of SMAA’s Meal on Wheels program. “I couldn’t help in the kitchen or set up” because she uses a wheelchair, she said, “but I could be at the door helping people fill out paperwork.” Barbara and neighbor Jackie signed up new cafe-goers, handed out raffle tickets and took the $5 donation from each attendee.

Before moving to Park Street School last fall, Barbara was living with her son in Arundel. “Since I’ve moved in here, I’ve met so many beautiful people,” she said.

And the food? “Oh gosh, it’s delicious.”

Avesta staff also help set up for the event and serve food. “It’s a good event,” said Resident Service Coordinator Angie Littlefield. “People seem to really enjoy it.”

The next cafe happens Friday, March 1, and rumor has it the menu is shrimp scampi. Contact SMAA at 1-800-400-6325 for more information.

Our Unity Gardens community in Windham also hosts meals for seniors on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, with catered meals the second Thursday of the month.

By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager