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Andy Wilcox photos, Register  

Napa Valley College men’s soccer teammates and Napa High alumni Dominic DeBenedetti, second from left, and Jake Lustig, third from left, keep an eye on a Yuba’s Jose Zavala on Monday.

Small Living
Napa woman makes the most of a ‘junior’ unit

Sue Decker lives in what the city calls a “junior accessory unit,” only there’s nothing “junior” about this inspiring and carefully designed living space.

Decker’s home, while just 640 square feet, includes everything this Napan needs including a full kitchen, bathroom, two sinks, a living room, office nook, outdoor patio and plenty of storage.

Better yet, her daughter’s family lives in her former home, right on the other side of the exposed brick wall in her living room.

“It really was a great move,” said Sue Decker, 77. The main house is nice, but so is her “junior” home.

“It’s been a win-win” for everyone, said Erik Harvey, Sue Decker’s son-in-law.

Decker and her husband Paul bought their home back in the early 1980s. Located on a city street on the lower part of Alta Heights, the parcel is about a quarter acre in size.

The main house included an attached garage/workshop area that for years was a catch-all storage place for anything the family didn’t have room for.

“It was just kind of a mess,” Sue Decker admitted.

Eventually, their two children moved out and started their own families, but when Paul Decker became disabled and started using a wheelchair, the couple knew they’d have to make some changes to their living arrangements. While their main house is all one floor, a small set of stairs separates the rest of the house from the bedrooms and bathrooms.

That’s when Sue and Paul decided to adapt the garage space into a new, and smaller, “home.”

At the same time, one of the Decker’s daughters, Kelly Decker and her husband Erik, would buy the “big” house and live there.

It just made sense, said Sue Decker. “They had two little kids and we didn’t need all the space.” And having her daughter and son-in-law so close was equally important, she said.

Paul Decker passed away in July 2016. But before then, their proximity was reassuring.

“We knew our family was there and they were a great help to us whenever Paul needed anything.”

And when her grandchildren were younger, she helped babysit.

About 13 years ago, the renovation began. Over about nine months, the former garage was converted into a wheelchair-friendly home including a bathroom with roll-in shower. For easy wheelchair access, there are no interior doors. A ramp leads to the front door, which is painted a dark purple.

“At first, we called it the maisonette, but that sounded a bit pretentious,” said Decker with a laugh. Now, “We just call it the studio.”

The renovation cost about $100,000, said Decker.

Besides working for a nonprofit, Paul Decker was also a fine artist who created many artworks.

With the help of other creative friends and neighbors, the couple transformed the new space into a welcoming haven that features original art on every wall.

Sue Decker described the design aesthetic as eclectic with Asian influences.

Decorative touches include wooden masks, colorfully painted walls, Asian-inspired furniture, movable wall screens, a clear glass table, some rough-cut finishes on the granite counter tops and exposed conduit on the brick wall.

The kitchen includes a full-sized stove, refrigerator, dishwasher and microwave. Instead of upper kitchen cabinets, Decker stores her dishware in cabinets under the counter. She even has a generously-sized pantry.

“I’ve got the works,” she said.

Lofted ceilings featuring clerestory-style windows and exposed beams give her home a spacious and airy feeling. A gas fireplace serves as the heating source.

“It only takes about 20 minutes to heat the whole place up,” Decker said. When needed, an interior wall-mounted air-conditioning unit keeps the home cool.

A private outdoor area that includes seating, a barbecue, storage cupboards and countertops almost doubles her living space.

Decker said she uses the patio often in the spring and summer. It “really does make a difference.”

But there are some drawbacks to small home living, said Decker.

For example, the couple gave up hosting overnight guests.

Plus, “If you want to have big parties, you have to have half the people one weekend” and the other half the next, she with a laugh.

On the other hand, “I had to give up a lot of housekeeping, which wasn’t hard.”

Ultimately, it’s much more about what she received “than what I gave up,” she said.

The city has begun to encourage other locals to create such dwellings to help ease the city’s housing crunch.

“Here’s an example of a real success,” said Decker. Her small home “really does have everything.”

While a son-in-law might think twice about living next to his mother-in-law, Harvey said it was not an issue.

“We’ve always gotten along.”

Both sides respect personal boundaries, he said. Family members knock first before entering each home.

“We’re not in each other’s space all the time,” Harvey said. “We still want to be respectful.”

And when you need a cup of sugar or an egg, it’s very convenient to ask your neighbor, he said with a smile.

Napa adoption blessed by a sense of destiny

The love of a child is infinite. Whether you are holding their hand to cross the street, kissing their boo-boos away or providing endless support and love, the role of a mother is paramount.

American author Jodi Picoult once said, “Being a parent wasn’t just about bearing a child. It was about bearing witness to its life.” For one local mother, love for her patient would stretch far beyond the walls of a hospital room.

Specializing in pediatric liver and intestinal transplants, Melanie Merrill-Kennedy fortuitously met Pocholo Aglubat on the day he was admitted to the hospital for a liver transplant. Born with Biliary Atresia, Pocholo (known as “Pochie”) required a liver transplant when he was merely 8 months old. Though gifted with a new liver, complications from the surgery hospitalized the infant for nearly a month.

“I spent a lot of time with Pochie during his admissions,” Merrill-Kennedy said. “His smile was infectious and it was the highlight of my day being able to spend time with him. He had a way of locking a place in your heart.”

Though a move to the Napa Valley would cause her to leave her position, the connection established by the physician assistant and her young patient was eternal. Already a devoted mother to son Nickolas, Melanie’s maternal instincts prompted her to inquire about Pochie after her departure from the hospital.

“Because Pochie was in foster care, I casually expressed to our social worker that if he ever needed a home to let me know .... I didn’t think it would actually happen and the moment passed,” she said.

Then, on one faithful day in November of 2012, Merrill-Kennedy was contacted by her social worker and informed that Pochie was in need of a foster home.

“When I received the email at the end of October, my heart just about leapt out of my chest. I understood that this was a foster placement but I couldn’t resist the feelings of wanting to be his forever home if that’s what the courts decided,” she said.

Merrill-Kennedy, a newlywed, said the decision to include Pochie into her family was fully supported by her husband, Aaron.

“My husband is adopted and had expressed a desire to expand our family with adoption. When I called him to tell him about the email and how I felt we were destined to care for this child, however short- or long-term that may be, he was very open to the idea,” Merrill-Kennedy said.

“It seemed like perfect timing. Here I was leaving my position to spend more time with our family, and who better to take care of a liver transplant patient. He was concerned about his long-term health and what that could mean for us, but agreed that this child was placed in front of us for a reason.”

Now, a family of four, the Kennedy’s have given Pochie a brother, a best friend and a place to call home.

“If I didn’t have Pochie for a brother I wouldn’t have him to play with. I love him 100 percent,” said Nickolas Kennedy.

Together, the family participates in Relay For Life, spreads awareness of organ donation and Merrill-Kennedy has since become an advocate for foster care reform as well as volunteered as a court-appointed special advocate (CASA).

Most importantly, the Kennedys focus their time on what matters most — each other.

On Dec. 4, 2015, the boy who first captured the heart of his care provider officially became a Kennedy. “I was happy and then I started freaking out because I was so happy,” said Pochie Kennedy.

The desire to be a forever home to Pochie became a reality, and the two who seemed to be destined for one another will forever be mother and son.

Aurora Heitman  

Melanie Merrill-Kennedy with Pochie, left, and his brother Nickolas.

Thompson, Napa County leaders say GOP tax bill would hurt fire survivors

Rep. Mike Thompson and Napa County leaders fear that people who lost homes in the recent wildfires could take a hit from federal income tax reform being debated in Congress.

The House of Representatives is discussing the Republican-proposed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2018. Among the possible provisions is to stop allowing property owners to deduct uninsured and underinsured wildfire losses from their federal income taxes, a county report said.

Napa County lost more than 500 homes in the recent Atlas, Tubbs and Nuns fires that broke out on Oct. 8. and menaced the community for about two weeks. Neighboring Sonoma County lost thousands of homes.

Thompson, D-St. Helena, brought up the proposed disaster deduction repeal issue Monday at a hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee on which he sits. He entered into a sharp exchange with Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the Republican chairman of the committee.

“Mr. Chairman, why would you have done that?” Thompson said. “Why would you take away the ability for working-class people who lose their homes in a disaster from being able to get a little help from the tax code?”

To add insult to injury, the bill would allow the disaster deductions for survivors of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, but not for California wildfire survivors, Thompson said.

“Why would you have done that?” Thompson said.

Brady said the committee would take up each provision of the proposed tax reform bill later. He added that he knows Thompson is passionate about the wildfire issue.

“Mr. Chairman, I am passionate,” Thompson said, softly hitting the dais for emphasis. “I’ve got 9,000 people who had their homes burned to the ground. Their lives are changed. The communities in which they live are changed, and you’re pulling the rug right out from beneath them.”

Brady said he has a number of families in his state that also lost their homes, referring to Hurricane Harvey’s effects on Houston and other communities.

“You took care of them,” Thompson said. “You grandfathered them in.”

Brady said Congress acted in a bipartisan way to provide tax relief for the hurricane survivors. He expects another package to come forward for the wildfires and he intends to seek tax relief for the wildfire survivors as well.

But Thompson criticized taking out tax relief with one piece of legislation to try to put it back with another piece of legislation.

“This is the wrong message to send to people who have just had their entire life turned upside down,” Thompson said. “It is absolutely wrong-headed, it’s cruel, it’s heartless. And it’s the wrong thing to tell Americans, hard-working middle-class Americans who’ve lost everything.”

“I am going to work to make sure they can write that off, I invite you to join me,” Brady said as the exchange ended.

Thompson brought the proposed disaster tax deduction repeal matter to the county’s attention. That led to a discussion at Tuesday’s Napa County Board of Supervisors meeting.

“This one feels especially egregious in the context of what we’re living through,” Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht said.

Supervisors voted unanimously to send a letter to Congress opposing the move.

“Were almost in a unique position with Sonoma to comment on this particular aspect of it,” Supervisor Diane Dillon said.

The Board of Supervisors might not be done commenting on the proposed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Supervisors could at future meeting discuss other provisions that they think would affect the local community.

The House Ways and Means Committee has 40 members: 24 Republicans and 16 Democrats. Go to to see Thompson’s exchange with Brady.

Among other things, Republicans say the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act will provide tax relief and allow nine of 10 Americans to file income tax returns on a postcard-sized form.