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On their own.

Children with learning disabilities or developmental disabilities grow up to become adults with disabilities. As adults, they share the same goals as their non-disabled peers: independence, a satisfying job, and friends. As adults with disabilities it's quite probable that they will require some level of support throughout their lives to achieve these goals.

When Wildwood Programs began in 1967, all of its participants were elementary school-aged children. As they grew into adolescents, and then into young adulthood, Wildwood grew with them to provide services to meet their changing needs. When the children reached their mid-teens, parents began asking the question, "What will happen when our children become too old to live with mom and dad, but lack the skills they need to be successful living on their own?" As an answer, they created Wildwood's Residential Program.

Moving Out

Dick and Virginia (Ginny) Rossuck were two of the founding parents of Wildwood Programs over 30 years ago. Their son, David, an adult with severe learning disabilities, was 20 when he graduated from high school. His younger sister, Lisa, had already gone off to college, and David was feeling trapped in a life with no choices. His last years in the public school system were tough. He grew isolated from his peers, and preferred, instead, the company of his pets. Life at home was stressful, as David was having more and more conflicts with his mother. "Mom's motto was, `If you make a mess, I'll clean it up,' Dave explains. "She was right there with a sponge wiping up after me even before I could get a chance. It was annoying because she made me feel like I was still a little kid."

David and his parents all realized that he needed more independence in order to grow. David decided that he wanted to move into his own apartment. He acknowledges, however, that he didn't possess the skills necessary to live on his own. The staff at Wildwood's first community residence, known as "Waverly Place," calmed his fears.

"I was homesick at first, because there were no ponds to catch frogs in, and I missed my parents," recalls David. "But the staff at Waverly Place taught me cooking, cleaning, how to pick up after myself, how to socialize with other residents, and how to communicate."

David spent every other weekend at home and the Rossuck's noticed a difference. "David stopped wasting energy blaming us for what he couldn't do because of his disabilities, and instead, focused on what he could do with his abilities," explains Ginny.

It wasn't all smooth sailing, though. The residential program was barely two-years old, and staff were still working out the best way to support the residents without becoming substitute parents. The Rossucks were unsure of how to participate as David's parents and advocates without disrupting the routine of the house. With the help of social worker Sue Hanson, input from David's job coach, and counseling from Wildwood Support Services, Dick, Ginny, David, and the Waverly staff created a productive plan. Everyone understood their roles and worked cooperatively to help David to achieve his goals.

More than a House

Sue Hanson, who has since become the director of Wildwood's Residential Program, has seen the program grow from one community residence to a comprehensive residential continuum. The program now includes six community residences (group homes), accommodating five to ten adults. A 24-hour supervised transitional apartment complex for 14 adults is also part of the program. There are two community staff teams that support 30 individuals living alone or with roommates in their own apartments.

Though Wildwood's Residential Program has expanded greatly in the last 19 years, the primary philosophy of individualized service planning, shared by the whole agency, has not been compromised.

"We don't group individuals in residences based on the type or severity of their disabilities," explains Sue Hanson. "We don't have one group home for autism and another for complex learning disabilities. Instead, we place people in residential settings based on a variety of criteria, ranging from the amount of support they need, to their compatibility with the other people who would share their home."

Like all other programs at Wildwood, an Individualized Service Plan (ISP) is implemented soon after an individual enters the residential program, and is revisited once a year. A meeting is arranged between the individual, residential staff, family members, and other key people in the individual's life. These include staff from other programs at Wildwood or outside service agencies. The group reviews the individual's goals and works together to create steps that need to be taken to reach them.

"Just like everyone else, each resident has different interests, dreams, and hopes," comments Hanson. "At any of the residences, you will see people going in different directions: this one is going to line dancing, that one is going to a bowling league, etc. Staff help them find avenues through which they develop their interests and gain the skills they need to reach their goals."

Presently, the individuals on the waiting list for residential services far outnumber those receiving services. Wildwood has been working with families to find alternatives to government-funded group homes.

Transitioning to Independence

At 27, Ann (or Annie as she prefers) Giglio is an independent woman. Working full-time for the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, she shares a house with two other women who have learning disabilities and neurologically-based developmental disabilities. Her housemate, Karen, owns the house and Annie and her other housemate, Nadine, pay Karen rent. All three women participate in Wildwood's Residential Program and receive support services from one of the community support teams. Annie also participates in Wildwood's Recreation, Employment, and Family Support Programs. Annie pays any program fee herself. When asked if she ever imagined five years ago that she would be where she is today, Annie smiles proudly and says, "Never."

Annie first got involved with Wildwood in high school, when the agency received a grant to do an outreach program. Wildwood provided Annie with vocational assessment and set her up with a job coach who helped her to realize her vocational strengths and to explore job options.

Annie was social and happy during high school, but after graduation, she found herself home with her parents most of the time. She was becoming more and more isolated from people her own age and activities in the I community. Charlie and Pat Giglio, Annie's parents, remember that time. "Annie was regressing into our little girl again, spending all of her time with mom and dad. We knew that there was nothing left for her at home, and we knew that she had to move out to access other opportunities, so we got Annie on the waiting list for residential services. It was a hard decision because Annie is delightful to have around," recalls Charlie.

Two years later, Annie and her father attended an informational meeting, run by Sue Hanson, about supervised transitional apartments. These apartments were created in 1987 as a stepping stone between living in a 24-hour supervised community residence and living in an apartment with regular support from the community support teams. The transitional apartments include six two-bedroom apartments and two one-bedroom apartments surrounding a common area for socializing and eating and a large kitchen for cooking group dinners. Each apartment also has its own kitchen, as well as a living room with a patio, bedrooms, and bathroom. The complex is supervised 24 hours a day, but the residents practice cooking, cleaning, and other life skills alone or with support from staff in their own apartments.

After six months of visits, dinners, and sleepovers, Annie told her parents that she was ready, and she moved out of her parents home into one of the two-bedroom apartments. She lived there for four years, and gained the confidence and skills, she needed to move on. Staff helped her become more assertive in communicating her wants and needs, and they supported her through her first love as well as her first relationship and breakup.

"I would have lived a very dull life if I lived at home," Annie explains. "I had friends, but I never went out,. Now I know the bus routes to get around, and I interact with people my age. When my boyfriend and I broke up, staff got me through it and beyond. Living in Latham (Transitional. Apartments) helped me to live independently. I was more than ready when I left."

Last year, Annie was approached with the possible chance of sharing a house with Karen and Nadine. She usually asks many questions and ponders all possibilities before making a decision, but this time, Annie jumped at the chance. Pat and Charlie are proud of their daughter.

"We thought that she was going to live with us forever. We never thought that she'd be living on her own and paying her own bills," Pat comments. "She's so happy."

Home is where the heart is

David Rossuck moved into the Supervised Transitional Apartments from Waverly Place. It was there that he met his fiancee Randi Andersen. When David and Randi started dating in 1989, staff were challenged. Having focused so much energy on encouraging residents to pursue individual interests and to participate in the community as valued individuals, they needed to learn how to support two people who wanted to be identified as a couple. Working as a team with Family Support Services, counselors, and David's and Randi's parents, staff were able to create a network of support for David and Randi, both as individuals and as a couple.

The Residential Program works with the other Wildwood services to educate residents about human sexuality and healthy, and responsible relationships. When David and Randi decided to live together at the transitional apartments, it gave everyone--residents, parents and staff--the opportunity to talk openly about the supports adults with learning and developmental disabilities need when they choose intimate relationships.

After living together for rune months at the transitional apartments, David and Randi were ready to move out into their own apartment in the community. They have been living together for seven years. Staff members from one of the residential community teams help them with some of the responsibilities of sharing an apartment such as budgeting their money and splitting the chores. "Randi is better at cooking and I do most of the cleaning," says David. "But I help her cook and she helps me clean." Engaged for three years, David and Randi have been discussing marriage. They may not know what challenges still lie ahead, but they are in love and planning to meet the future together. With a little help from Wildwood Programs, David and Randi will not only overcome the challenges, but they will also continue striving for their dreams.

Michele Battiste is Director of Communications for Wildwood Programs. Also a freelance writer, her work has been published in various print and on-line magazines and journals.
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Title Annotation:adults with learning disabilities
Author:Battiste, Michele C.
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Jun 1, 1998
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