Grant helps boy reunite with family

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Three-year-old Tyler Clabaugh, right, opens an early Christmas gift while sitting on the lap of his great-grandmother, Kathy Sembrowich, in their Naugatuck home Friday. Thanks to a Naugatuck Valley Health District grant that helps remove lead paint from homes, the family has been reunited. Tyler had been living in foster care for a few years because his great-grandparents could not obtain custody of him because their 1885 home had lead problems. RA ARCHIVE

NAUGATUCK — Lead paint is a serious threat to children, one that nearly kept a young boy in foster care instead of with his biological family.

Thanks to a lead-abatement grant, a healthy dose of sweat equity from the homeowner and money kicked in from the Department of Children and Families, the boy is now in a lead-free home with his family.

Thomas and Kathy Sembrowich live in a Cherry Street home built in 1885. It had never been renovated to remove lead paint, which was in the home’s exterior and interior. When they wanted to obtain custody of their great-grandson, Tyler Clabaugh, DCF deemed the house unsafe because of the levels of lead.

Lead paint, which is particularly dangerous for young children, can be inhaled through dust or ingested through paint chips and dirt. High levels of lead in a child can cause learning disabilities and problems with speech, language and behavior, among other issues. The great-grandson, who turns 4 in February and lived in the Cherry Street home from birth until he was taken out of his mother’s custody 18 months ago, was tested for lead and the results were negative.

In 2009, the Naugatuck Valley Health District received a three-year, $3 million lead-abatement grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The goal of the Naugatuck Valley Emend Lead Hazards, or NauVEL, program was to complete lead abatement in homes built before 1978 in Ansonia, Beacon Falls, Derby, Naugatuck, Seymour and Shelton.

Thomas Sembrowich applied for the program and qualified. His property was inspected and the project went out to contractors for bidding. The lowest bid to complete the work was for $28,055. NauVEL’s cap for a single-family home is $13,500. So, Sembrowich, who is 66 and a retired musician, recruited a friend and began to do all the renovations they could handle on their own, including replacing wood flooring and replacing the kitchen ceiling. The result was the equivalent of more than $10,000 in sweat equity.

But that left a gap of almost $4,400, which neither the program nor Sembrowich could cover. Cynthia Vitone, outreach and education coordinator for NauVEL, suggested Sembrowich ask DCF if they could help so the child could be released from state custody.

“Long story short, it worked,” said Vitone, adding that the result is a lead-safe home that houses a newly reunited family.

The great-grandson returned in September and shares the home with his great-grandparents and his uncle, David Lepeska, 17. Sembrowich said the foster family who took care of the child was great and continue to see the boy.

“God bless NauVEL and DCF for coming through and making it possible for us to get him back,” Sembrowich said. “He is doing great. He’s progressing very well. He’s happy and everybody is happy.”

The grant money took care of the exterior work, including replacing the siding and putting in new windows. The HUD grant for NauVEL expires Dec. 31, but the health district is applying for a six-month extension as well as a new, three-year, $2.5 million grant.

“We did all of our work very frugally and saved a lot of money,” said Deborah Dozier, NauVEL construction manager, explaining the need for an extension. “We still have over a hundred thousand dollars to use.”

Three year-old Tyler Clabaugh, front right, poses for a photo with his great-grandmother Kathy Sembrowich, uncle David Lepeska, 17, back left, and great-grandfather Thomas Sembrowich, in their Naugatuck home on Friday. RA ARCHIVE

The goal had been to complete lead abatement in 154 units; a unit is one dwelling space, so a two-family home would be two units. So far, the program has completed lead abatement in 171 units and contracts are in place to bring the total to 199.

Different organizations in the state have been doing lead abatements for more than a decade. Waterbury has more than one agency working in lead abatement. Another program, in Torrington and Waterbury, also uses federal funds for lead abatement, but gives priority to applications where children have tested with high levels of lead in their blood.

“Given the age of much of the Valley’s housing stock, the health and welfare of our children depends upon programs like this,” Vitone said. “We are working on an application for additional funding, but if it is not granted, I don’t know what other economically stressed families in the Naugatuck Valley will do when they are faced by a lead-hazard issue.”