PORTLAND — When it was founded in the early 1960s, Katahdin Friends was a small, community effort that provided a school for children with intellectual disabilities around Millinocket.
After expanding its services over the decades, KFI has followed the population shift from northern Maine to the southern part of the state. The agency recently began expanding its services to greater Portland and other parts of southern Maine.
KFI Executive Director Gail Fanjoy said like the rest of the state’s population, the population of individuals with disabilities is growing, and she first began mulling an expansion to southern Maine almost three years ago.
“It’s not only a good move in terms of going where people go, but we also found our brand is still unique in Maine, and we think we can offer something different for people,” Fanjoy said.
As time went on and those first students got older, the nonprofit expanded its efforts to provide more services for individuals, such as a work program and a group home. Fanjoy said eventually the organization wanted to find a way to get the individuals with disabilities to play a role in the larger community, and not remain sheltered.
“In 1984 we began tearing down all we had built up,” Fanjoy said.
While children with intellectual disabilities had been in their own school environment, Fanjoy said KFI began transitioning students back into the larger school systems. In 1987 the sheltered workshop was shuttered, and staffers began getting clients back into the community.
“People can live in their own home, they don’t have to have a group living situation,” Fanjoy said.
Fanjoy said KFI today is an organization which provides very customized support services to its clients. It doesn’t have buildings and programs, but instead caters to individual needs.
“We’re the quiet company, we want to stay in the background,” she said.
Laurie Kimball, director of KFI South, said the organization is serving 17 people in Cumberland and York Counties, 14 of whom receive home support. Four of those who receive home support also receive career planning services, and three more individuals receive only career planning services. Kimball said two more clients will begin receiving services in the next month.
Fanjoy said clients can access KFI services the same way they would find any other care provider, through a vendor call and their caseworkers. Service providers receive notifications of individuals seeking service, and then respond to the individual’s caseworker to discuss their program. She said the organization provides services to nearly 100 individuals statewide.
According to Fanjoy, there are 13 staff members serving southern Maine. She said the staff members are more like “free agents,” since there is no office building in Portland. They make their own decisions and there is no one “standing over their shoulders.”
She said KFI staff are “more like life coaches” than traditional social service staff. KFI employs over 100 full and part-time workers.
“We can teach people anything, but you have to walk through the door believing people regardless have the right to be a member of the community just as they are,” Fanjoy said.
Fanjoy said Portland and the rest of southern Maine present challenges that are less common in northern Maine.
For example, she said housing is more expensive in southern Maine, so it’s a greater struggle to find affordable and decent housing in safe places. To deal with this, Fanjoy said KFI staff members are “very well versed” in poverty programs for everyone, such as food stamps, fuel assistance and affordable housing.
Despite the challenges, Fanjoy said the move to expand into southern Maine is “the best decision we’ve made as an agency.”
“It’s exciting,” Fanjoy said. “The people in southern Maine are no different than the people in northern Maine we’re supporting.”
KFI, a Millinocket-based organization that provides services to individuals with disabilities, is expanding into southern Maine.