Russell Smith spent his childhood taking care of horses and milking cows on his family’s farm in Virginia. His father nicknamed him “Cowboy” for the work he did.
At 62 years old, he’s still known by that name and wears leather boots, a vest and hat to match daily. It’s reminiscent of his childhood during the 1960s, when he still had his vision. Smith went blind from glaucoma in 1985 after a serious car accident.
“But that’s life,” Smith said. “It’s kind of hard, but you keep going.”
One of the ways he’s adapted is moving in to the Edith R Rudolphy Residence For the Blind, an assisted living home for the blind and otherwise visually impaired which houses 16 tenants.
Certain residents of the home have personal caretakers that assist them with day-to-day tasks, and there is a 24/7 support staff on site, said Sherron Walker, the home’s property manager. For its services, the home receives federal subsidies from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Tenants also pay rent, which varies for each resident as it equals 30 percent of their individual monthly income.
For example, a tenant who doesn’t have a job may pay $250 in rent each month, but those with a consistent income will have a higher rent, Walker said.
Smith, who has lived in the residence since 2004, and Agnes Dutill, who moved in a little over a year ago, each spent at least three years on the waitlist. The flexible prices and services provided at the residence make it a community worth waiting years to be apart of.
“Since we’re all blind, we know what different things are, what we might need, and the support we need from each other,” said Ditill, who lives with cataracts.
Walker said the waitlist runs on a first-come, first-serve basis, and rooms open up when a tenant moves out, dies or is evicted for a violation like stealing or not paying rent.
Both Dutill and Smith heard about the Edith R Rudolphy Residence For the Blind from peers. Smith learned about it as a student at the Associated Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a nonprofit in Center City that teaches visually impaired people skills like cleaning, cooking and getting around with a White Cane. Dutill was introduced to the residence when her sister was a tenant there.
The building has been a working home for the blind since 1880, when the Pennsylvania Industrial Home for Blind Women — which is the Edith R Rudolphy Residence For the Blind’s former name — commissioned the space to shelter and employ visually impaired women.
According to the Philadelphia Historical Commission, the Pennsylvania Industrial Home for Blind Women was one of 50 social service facilities built in West Philadelphia during the second half of the nineteenth century. It was recently reviewed for designation to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2017, on the cusp of the building’s 100th anniversary of serving the visually impaired.
Before moving into the Edith R Rudolphy Residence For the Blind, Dutill was one of 150 tenants in the Robert Stinson Towers in Chester, Pennsylvania. She put her name on the waiting list because she wanted a smaller building with a “little family” of tenants, as Smith called it.
“If somebody’s hurting, everybody’s hurting,” he said. “If somebody’s mad, everybody’s mad. We look out for each other here.”
Some of Dutill’s favorite activities include caroling around the holidays and a residence-wide birthday party for all of the tenants in June.
“We got bingo in here, that’s nice,” Smith added. “We do a little dancing now and then, get your limbs moving. They have good lunch, too. Especially around Thanksgiving time, New Years.”
Dutill, who has been visually impaired her entire life, is comfortable in spaces built to serve her community. Growing up, she lived at the Overbrook School for the Blind on Malvern Avenue near 64th Street as a student from kindergarten to 12th grade. It was difficult to find playmates when she returned to her parents’ home in Coatesville, Pennsylvania during the summers and holidays, she said.
Since arriving at Edith R Rudolphy, Dutill has found companionship on a more consistent basis, in particular with her partner, Robert McClay, a fellow tenant whom she shares an apartment with.
“He came as someone else’s guest,” Dutill giggled, reminiscing on the night in 2007 when they first met at a banquet hosted by a choir that Dutill sings in. “There was no room at their table so he sat at my table… We exchanged phone numbers, and the rest is history.”
Jule Ann Lieberman is the vice president of the Pennsylvania Council for the Blind, a statewide advocacy organization. Lieberman never felt like it was necessary to live in a residence for visually impaired people because she didn’t grow up with those resources. Her vision loss wasn’t recognized until she was 16.
But she said no resource suits every person who is visually impaired. The Pennsylvania Council for the Blind advocates for people’s right to choose what is best for them.
“Think about those that maybe were my contemporaries or those especially older than I, whose only educational experience was a residential school for the blind,” Lieberman said. “Their lifestyle was around that community. Then, that’s where their peers were. They’re accustomed to having that type of segregated type of environment. … I’m not going to say either one is good or bad. It’s just that it’s different. And I think that, in today’s world, we have a lot of choices.”
Despite enjoying the Edith R Rudolphy Residence For the Blind, Dutill’s and Smith’s lives aren’t defined by the property’s boundaries. Smith takes daily walks around the neighborhood and does his best to attend services at the North Providence Baptist Church in Germantown.
Dutill stays active outside of the home by taking part in a knitting class, crocheting class, her choir and a group that plays audio dart, which is a version of the popular game designed for visually impaired people. She’s also been the president of the Lawncrest Physically Challenged Association for 12 years and helps organize monthly events at the Lawncrest Recreation Center in the Northeast.
“Just because it’s a building for the blind…we still do things and we still mix in with other people,” Dutill said. “This apartment building isn’t really any different than any other place you live.”
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