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Easton support center working for Buffett grant

By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / October 6, 2011

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EASTON - The House of Possibilities, a center for children and adults with developmental disabilities, could get a $250,000 check from billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s older sister, Doris.

The only catch is that the nonprofit, which opened in 2009 on the edge of the Stonehill College campus, has to raise the same amount of money within a year.

The grant would come from Doris Buffett’s Sunshine Lady Foundation, which she formed in 1996 for the sole purpose of giving away all of her considerable inherited wealth. Her fortune comes from stock in her brother’s company, Berkshire Hathaway , and her plan is to keep writing checks until the last one bounces.

So far, she has handed out more than $100 million to individuals and organizations - including Friendship Home in Norwell, a program for developmentally disabled adults that has received $500,000 over the last two years.

“A lot of my life I was looking for a fairy godmother who never showed up; now I can be that person,’’ said Buffett, who is in her 80s and lives in Virginia, in a televised interview last year.

She said she required those she helped to raise a matching amount of money because “if you want something for somebody more than they want it for themselves, forget it, you’re wasting your time.’’

Paula Kavolius, a Walpole resident who founded and heads the House of Possibilities, said a member of her board found out about Buffett’s interest in children with special needs “by fluke’’ while watching television. The organization applied for a grant and heard that it was approved on Sept. 1, Kavolius said.

She’s already busy fund-raising. Although she has until September 2012, she said she wants to raise her share by April.

While an online auction of a two-week vacation in Hawaii failed to get bidders, a cocktail party drew 75 contributors, she said. She plans more parties in supporters’ homes and will revive the auction with less pricey items.

Kavolius is no stranger to fund-raising; she led the $1.6 million drive that allowed House of Possibilities to be built on land leased from Stonehill College - at $1 annually for 50 years - and to operate seven programs that provide respite for parents and activities for their children. About 150 families participated last year, she said.

The Yawkey Foundation contributed to the cause, as did scores of individuals and businesses that donated money and time. More than 70 electrician volunteers wired the house, for example, and teams of fathers and sons from St. Sebastian’s School in Needham spread 80 yards of mulch in the yard. Kavolius would not disclose the operating budget of House of Possibilities because, she said, “we are very much a start-up, and I’m very protective of it.’’

She said if House of Possibilities secures the Sunshine grant, “it will put us on solid footing for many years.’’ She said the money would be used primarily to expand overnight and weekend respite services - allowing parents a break from the intense responsibility of caring for a disabled child.

“That’s where I believe the greatest need is, [because] nobody’s doing it,’’ Kavolius said. “Without [respite], marriages fall apart, people get ill. If people don’t get respite on a sustained basis, their family starts to unravel.’’

The mother of two children, one with intellectual and physical disabilities, Kavolius understands the need for respite.

“I was a stay-at-home mom and I rarely let anybody help because I didn’t think anyone else was capable,’’ she said. “The few times I did look for help, it was a horrific circle of disappointment. If it was that hard for me, what happened to people without the family support, financial means?’’

Friendship Home in Norwell has a similar story, with parents and friends of adults with disabilities banding together to provide respite, activities, and work opportunities for about 170 individuals and their families.

One supporter who was on her honeymoon happened to meet Doris Buffett at a spa in Pennsylvania.

“We were at dinner and I was sitting next to this very attractive woman with gray hair - she had on a gray sweatsuit - and we were talking about our favorite charities,’’ said Patricia Borderwick. “She said hers was helping battered women and she was sending 500 battered women to college.

“She said, ‘My last name happens to be Buffett and you might have heard of my brother, Warren. I inherited a ton of money that I didn’t do a damn thing to earn, so I’m going to help [people] who need help.’ ’’

Borderwick said she told Buffett about the Norwell project, which Buffett subsequently helped finance.

“We consider her a very good friend of ours; we are very grateful to Doris,’’ said Friendship Home founder Wilma Goodhue.

More information about Friendship Home is available at homepage.mac.com/jrs54/Friendship_Home/.

More information about the House of Possibilities is available at www.houseofpossibilities.org.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seelenfam@verizon.net.