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A wish come true

Joy Kirk and Betty Hvitfeldtsen are an unlikely pair of roommates.

Kirk, 58, is a recently divorced woman who works in the seafood department of Payless Foods in Freeland. Hvitfeldtsen, 75, is a retired widow.

What they both share in common is they are some of the first participants in WISH, Whidbey Island Share a Home.

WISH officially launched in January and is a program that facilitates living arrangements between individuals or families who want to share a home with another unrelated individual or family. Not just a South Whidbey program, WISH coordinates affordable housing for home seekers and home providers from Oak Harbor to Clinton.

Sandra Stipe, program coordinator for WISH, said 16 matches have been made island-wide since the program began earlier this year.

“It’s grown in leaps and bounds,” she said.

The spark for starting a home-share program on Whidbey Island began with South Whidbey Soroptimists Lynn Hicks and Karen Thomas in 2003. When she was a 21-year-old undergraduate student, Hicks had participated in a Lutheran Social Services share-a-home program in Blaine, Minn. She needed an inexpensive place to call home while she completed a six-month internship, so an ad in a newspaper for a home share caught her eye.

“It was perfect,” Hicks said. “Still to this day we keep in touch.”

Hicks had been paired with an older couple, Dorothy and Arthur Bruss. In exchange for doing some chores around the house and the occasional adult companionship for Dorothy who had Alzheimer’s, Hicks stayed in the house rent free.

WISH is structured similarly, participants seeking homes pay minimal or no rent depending on their living arrangements. Since May, Joy Kirk has paid homeowner Betty Hvitfeldtsen what she calls an “affordable” rent for her budget, and in exchange she shares utilities, does light housework and gives Hvitfeldtsen the assurance of having a companion in her home.

A year ago, Hvitfeldtsen took a bad fall in her home, and it took a while before anyone found her to get her help. A daughter had taken her to live on the mainland to recover, but both of them knew Whidbey Island was where Hvitfeldtsen wanted to be. Kirk said it was Hvitfeldtsen’s daughter who found the WISH program for her, and soon after Hvitfeldtsen began the application process.

“When those two met they hit it off,” WISH’s Stipe said of Kirk and Hvitfeldtsen.

She said every time she calls the house, the two woman are laughing, having a good time.

“People feel pretty comfortable about meeting,” she said. “The matches have just been wonderful.”

Though they share a home in Freeland, neither are obligated to spend time together but do occasionally enjoy each others company. Kirk admits she often comes home from work exhausted, and likes to relax in her own area of the home. She has the whole upstairs to herself, and has a bedroom and a living room area where she can go to watch her own television shows if they wish. The two share a kitchen, but both have separate bathrooms.

Hvitfeldtsen also wears a Lifeline necklace now, but feels good knowing Kirk lives just upstairs.

“It’s a really good situation for me,” Hvitfeldtsen said. “I feel secure now in my own house.”

Caring, sharing together at home

Sitting in their living room this week, the two women joked and giggled like they have a mother/daughter relationship. Though Kirk is there to give Hvitfeldtsen an added hand around the house, it was Hvitfeldtsen who worried about Kirk when she added kindling to the wood stove.

“Do you need help?” Hvitfeldtsen asked Kirk getting up from her chair.

According to Stipe, anyone is eligible for the program regardless of income because there are many reasons people choose to share a home. While some are looking for affordable housing or help paying for their mortgage or expenses, others need a roommate for the extra help around the house.

“The need is island-wide,” she said.

She said some seniors are not be able to afford the large home they’ve lived in for the greater part of their lives, while others are not able to do things they had done before, like mowing the lawn, cleaning or the occasional errand. She stresses the program is not intended to be home health care for the seriously ill, nor does it provide emergency housing.

“You get to stay in your home and you get to help somebody else out,” Stipe said. “It’s really cool to be able to watch these seniors stay in their homes.”

Hicks said starting the program on Whidbey Island appealed to her because in practicing law and seeing many divorces and domestic issues, she saw a lot of people who could benefit from the arrangement.

“Good people just needed a break at that time in their life,” she said.

Carol Makela and Ellie Filla are another one of WISH’s recent pairings. The two have been sharing Makela’s Clinton home since July. Recently single and in her 40s, Makela found herself alone in a large home with two small children, ages 2 and 4. In seeking out someone to share her home, she knew she wanted to return to college to obtain her teaching certificate.

In pairing with another housemate, Makela knew in addition to the additional funds of Filla’s rent of $300 a month, Filla, who is 21 years old and was living in her parents’ home previously, would babysit her two children three nights a week while she attended night classes.

“I feel really luck that she’s the one that moved in,” Makela said.

Filla, on the other hand, was ready to try her hand at independence and getting out of the house from her teenage siblings. She works at the Inn at Langley, and longed for her own private space she could call home.

I wanted to try something new,” she said.

Filla, who lives in a separate apartment beneath Makela’s house, said she enjoys being able to come and go as she pleases. She likes the idea of not living completely by herself, and also enjoys the company of Makela and her two children.

“I love the kids,” she said.

According to WISH’s Stipe, participants in the program do have to meet some guidelines. The primary home sharers must be at least 18, and the home shared must be on Whidbey Island. A home provider must have at least two bedrooms, one for the home provider and one for the home seeker.

Both parties are required to provide three character references and be willing to undergo a criminal background check through the Washington State Patrol, according to Stipe. People who have been convicted of a felony will not be eligible.

Stipe stressed a commitment to communicate with program coordinators is essential. Coordinators do not match participants, but provide anonymous listings of home provider and home seeker profiles to facilitate a self-match. After looking through the listings, participants are asked to request more information on listings that interest them.

Stipe said once interested parties both agree to meet, she facilitates a meeting between them at a neutral place to talk. She said many people meet several times before they make arrangements to live together, but others know almost instantly it will work.

Since the program is so new, Stipe has not seen any agreements to live together dissolve. Participants sign agreements similar to rent contracts, and similar notices to dissolve the agreement must be made with enough notice to give the other party time to make new arrangements.

As a non-profit organization, Stipe said WISH asks for a one-time donation of $10 from applicants to keep the program running. Stipe is responsible of fundraising and applying for grants to keep the $43,000 a year budget running. The budget pays for two part-time employees, who operate business hours several days a week.

Their largest sponsors include the Soroptimist International of South Whidbey Island, Island Thrift and Trinity Lutheran Church.

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