Michelle Brown approached the microphone. It was her first public speaking appearance, but even with dozens of eyes fixed on her, she knew exactly what she wanted to say.
“Pattie is the best thing that ever happened to me. She helped me become more independent.”
In the audience, Pattie Romeo dabbed at her eyes.
“Thank God for MENTOR,” Brown continued, “that’s all I have to say.”
Brown and Romeo have lived together for five years, thanks to the support of RI MENTOR Shared Living, a human service organization that places adults with developmental disabilities with families who are willing to care for and love them.
Brown was one of four original clients in the Rhode Island program, which has since grown exponentially.
RI MENTOR now serves 60 individuals across the state, and last Wednesday they celebrated five years of family with an anniversary dinner at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick.
“Shared living is an option that empowers an individual, and it has improved the quality of life for everyone involved,” said Patricia Donovan, the state executive director for MENTOR who oversees programs in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
“We’ve seen people really thrive in this shared living environment, not just the individuals we’re serving but the families as well.”
Getting to that point wasn’t easy. Historically, individuals with disabilities have been directed to institutions or group homes. Within the last 30 years, however, the shared living model has emerged as an alternative that is both cost-efficient to governments and beneficial for the consumer.
Still, it had its skeptics.
Program Manager Joanne Malise has been there from the beginning, and last week she thanked the people who made MENTOR a reality, including Craig Stenning, the director of the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals.
“We did not get caught up in the negativity; we did not get caught up in the roadblocks. We focused on the people we serve,” Malise said of the organization’s beginning.
Stenning applauded Malise’s unwavering commitment when it comes to serving her families. He says you can’t know what MENTOR is about until you spend time with some of the families whose lives have been changed through the program.
“When I’m having a really bad day, the way I get through it is remember the smiles I see here tonight. This is what the work is all about,” he said. “It’s not about budgets, it’s not about money, it’s about people.”
At a time when human services are suffering cuts, Stenning encouraged the MENTOR staff and families to push forward on their mission.
“These are not easy times; these are extremely difficult times. During these difficult times, it’s more important that we stay positive and we work together,” he said.
Paul Cataldo, the director of national business development for MENTOR, said the cost to support an individual in shared living is often half that of a group home.
He believes that is secondary to the progress clients make once they’ve been welcomed into a family.
“The continuity of care is one of the real hallmarks of the program,” he explained.
In a group home setting, for example, an individual might go to sleep under the supervision of one staff member and wake up to another. Schedules are determined by the staff, since they cannot meet the requests of the entire group at once.
It’s a lifestyle that works for some people, but Cataldo has seen the difference shared living has made for others. He recalled one client who came to MENTOR with a vocabulary of only 20 words. Within a year, he knew hundreds of words.
In other instances, the continuity of medical care has led to dramatic weight loss or taking a newfound pride in one’s appearance.
“We see remarkable progress,” he said. “Often the results are shocking and deeply profound.”
In addition to the love MENTOR families give, the staff is on call 24 hours a day to provide support. Each month, participants share stories and best practices at MENTOR Nights, which also gives clients and the families who care for them a chance to build relationships. That spirit, Cataldo said, is the heart of the organization.
“It’s the sense that we’re a big family,” he said.
Though many of the caregivers at MENTOR come from the social services field, it is in no way a requirement. If you are interested in joining the program and taking in an individual with a disability, Cataldo encourages you to attend a MENTOR Night to see what it’s all about.
“A lot of people are intimidated by it, but look into it,” he said. “If you have a desire to care for other people, you’ve got time, you’ve got a spare bedroom and you’ve got empathy for other people, come on in.”
For Crystal Moniz, MENTOR means opportunities she never dreamed of. Since she came to live with Lynn Marcantonio, she has become more engaged in the community than ever. She attends a day program at CranstonArc, participates in Special Olympics and works at Walmart.
At home, she and Lynne have taken up gardening and love to spend time with their pets. But her favorite thing to do with her new family?
“Go on vacation,” she says, smiling. “We have a trailer down in the Cape, and we’re going to the Bahamas in October.”
Malise thanked individuals like Crystal and caregivers like Lynn for inspiring her and making work a joy for five years.
“You have opened your hearts and your homes. You have committed years of your lives to helping others. Thank you for taking the brave step to be part of a new family,” she said. “You have taught me never to underestimate the power of love.”
For many of the individuals MENTOR serves, they’re traveling, getting jobs and making new friends for the first time. Donovan explained that when people get older, they get to choose whether they want to live at home or move out. Too often, this choice – independence – is not offered to individuals with disabilities.
“This option affords the people we serve those same opportunities,” she said. “It’s a wonderful option to improve the quality of life.”
Donovan has seen the quality of life improved for 1,200 people nationwide.
MENTOR is currently in 35 states and continues to grow. In neighboring Massachusetts, the program has been in place for 30 years, and Donovan foresees Rhode Island following in those footsteps.
“Think about another 25 years and how much more enriched your lives will be after that amount of time,” she said. “It’s been a great ride and we’re just looking forward to the next 25.”