Building a Dream

Maya Angelou once wrote that “the ache for home lives in all of us.” For adults with intellectual disabilities, the longing for a home, a place of independence, is a longing that is rarely fulfilled.

Link Associates, founded in 1953, is a community-based nonprofit that serves more than 900 individuals with intellectual disabilities in the Des Moines area. Link has spent the past six decades helping intellectually disabled adults develop increasing independence by offering job training, residential assistance, and much more.

Last year, thanks to a generous donation from Bankers Trust and the help of Coldwell Banker and Tanzanite Homes, Link made that dream of a home come true for four Des Moines residents. The success of that project led to a second project this year.

“About three years ago, we started looking for a house to renovate,” says Linda Dunshee, Executive Director of Link Associates. “We thought we could find a ranch home that we could modify, but we just couldn’t find anything we could afford.”

After Link discussed the needs and the budget with Sarah Kavalier at Coldwell Banker, Kavalier reached out to fellow REALTOR® Robin von Gillern. “I knew Robin worked with KRM Development and Tanzanite Homes, and they had experience with new construction closer to the price range Link needed,” says Kavalier. “Link’s budget and current housing prices just didn’t allow much wiggle room for the renovations that would need to be made.”

Designer Tracie Burrell at Tanzanite Homes assisted with identifying a floor plan that would work for Link’s needs after some modifications. The next step was finding a lot that suited the residents’ restrictions.

“The lot needed to be on a bus line, have sidewalk access, and be suitable for a slab-built ranch design,” Kavalier says. “Kirk Mickelson at KRM Development put the word out, and he found four in-fill lots that were perfect.”

That first home, a four-bedroom, was completed last spring. The four adult residents moved in just as COVID restrictions went into place.

“We didn’t get to do the big celebration we wanted to with the new residents and subcontractors because of quarantine,” says Burrell. “But we started talking during the first build about doing a second home. Feedback from those first residents helped us make minor changes to the plan.”

Thanks to the sale of a Link-owned property in Ankeny, which was not handicap- accessible, funding for a second home came together quickly. The second home will feature five bedrooms, each with a wheelchair lift, and two bathrooms. “We broke ground in November on one of the other lots just a few doors down from the first home,” says Kavalier.

The floor plans on both properties include adaptations to make them suitable to safely support adults with both physical and intellectual challenges. Many of these design elements were familiar to Burrell from prior projects, but she says there were other considerations she had not addressed before in her designs. “Things like wider hallways to accommodate wheelchairs and zero-entry showers are not uncommon,” she says. “But there were other features we had to make sure accommodated every resident. So a wheelchair can fit under the counter, all the kitchen and bathroom sinks are designed for wheelchair access. Showers allow chair access so every resident can actually get in the shower and an aide can assist them.”

Dunshee says, “The four residents in the first home never had the opportunity to live with 24-hour/day staff support in their own home. This home has opened up such a world of possibility for these folks. Most of us can’t imagine what they deal with every day, just the little things like being able to take a shower. That hasn’t been possible for some of our clients because their homes or apartments can’t accommodate their needs. Imagine only being able to sponge bathe. The small things that we take for granted are impossible for them.”

Based on feedback from the first residents and to adapt the plan to suit the new residents, Burrell made additional tweaks to the second home’s design. “We’ll be installing metal frames around the doors to protect them from damage from wheelchairs,” she says. “We added special backing behind the walls, too, so they’re sturdier and can stand up to the day-to-day traffic of the residents who are in their wheelchairs.”

The new plan also features a fifth bedroom with a kitchenette and a separate entrance, much like a mother-in-law apartment. “One of the residents is more independent and doesn’t require 24-hour supervision, so we wanted to provide a little more privacy for him,” Dunshee explains.

Working with Link on these projects has not only transformed the lives of the residents who will live in the homes, it’s had a long-lasting effect on Kavalier as well. “The more I learn about what Link does and what these adults deal with every day, it’s just opened my eyes to how hard it is for them to live a normal life,” she says. “These fairly simple changes to a home make it possible for them to live like adults. It’s so exciting to be a part of that.”

Kavalier’s enthusiasm has gone beyond these specific projects. Beginning this year, she will be serving on the Link Associates Board of Directors.

“Link provides services to adults with physical and intellectual disabilities,” says Dunshee. “Our clients are fully capable of living active lives. We try to provide anything a family needs to improve the quality of life for intellectually challenged family members and for the entire family.”

Link owns or rents dozens of properties across the metro, from apartments to houses, to help those served transition to semi-independent living. Each living situation provides what the residents there need, including trained 24-hour staffing.

“We would love to do more homes like these two projects,” Dunshee says. “It’s so much more cost-effective to build a suitable home than try to adapt one. But it all depends on fundraising.”

Thanks to the generosity of donors, contractors, and subcontractors, in less than 18 months, Link has been able to provide a dream come true for nine adults who might never have been able to live such independent lives.

Learn more about these projects—and get involved in making more homes possible—by visiting the Link Associates site: or contacting Linda Dunshee at Check out more photos here: