Ernestine Thomas lost her daughter and her granddaughter in a tragic car accident. Every night, she would cry herself to sleep.
Until she met Sheri.
“She’s my savior,” Thomas says. “She has filled up the emptiness that I used to feel.”
One year after the accident, Sheri moved into Thomas’ home thanks to the RI MENTOR Shared Living Program. MENTOR Shared Living (MSL), whose Rhode Island base is in Warwick, connects adults with developmental disabilities with loving families who are willing to care for them. It’s an alternative to group homes and institutions, and one that is becoming increasingly popular as states, including Rhode Island, recognize its cost-effectiveness as well as the benefit for individuals in shared living. These individuals get one-on-one love and attention, and for some, it is their first experience being a part of a family.
Katherine, an individual served by MSL, has been given more freedom under a shared living arrangement, and is able to have experiences like vacations that she may not otherwise be exposed to. Since living with Susan Robertson, she has gotten a job and lost 100 pounds.
Robertson said the benefits are mutual.
“I can’t imagine life without her,” she said.
With 24/7 on-call support from MSL coordinators, she said caregivers are never alone.
“It’s been great; I can’t say enough about the mentoring network,” Robertson said, calling the staff “the most understanding people I’ve ever encountered.”
The company has a monthly MENTOR Night where mentor families and the people they serve get together to socialize, offer support and share best practices when caring for someone with a disability. Last Wednesday, MSL celebrated Participant Appreciation Night in their Warwick office, focusing on how the participants have enhanced the program.
“This is family. You can’t buy a family but you can become a part of it through MENTOR,” said Elaine Medeiros, as she helped Gloria with her dinner.
Medeiros has long worked with individuals with developmental disabilities. She saw Gloria’s quality of life in a group home and felt she could do a better job caring for her one-on-one. Gloria’s family agreed, and they’ve been together ever since.
“Gloria’s just as happy as ever,” Medeiros said. “She has more independence. She’s been everywhere; we don’t treat her like she has disabilities.”
Though Gloria is nonverbal, her behavior has changed since coming into Medeiros’ home. She enjoys shopping and getting her nails done, traveling and spending time with family and friends. Prior to meeting Medeiros, many of those activities were not possible.
“She didn’t have those options but now she does. I feel better giving someone the opportunities that I’ve had,” she said.
Cynthia Smith came to MSL from a different perspective. She had no plans to join the program, but her mother was a MENTOR provider. As her mother got older, she worried that providing care was becoming too strenuous, so Smith moved home to become a co-mentor.
“It’s ended up being a very huge part of my life,” she said.
She too called the experience “a blessing,” and said it has changed her outlook on life.
“I have always had a very high stress life and I feel so at peace and so calm. This is where I should be right now in my life. It’s an awesome experience,” she said.
Jasmin Desmarais says it was an equally important experience for her family. As the mother of two young children, she felt having Lois in her home would have a positive impact on her kids.
“I would never want my children to be fearful of someone who didn’t look the same way or talk the same way,” she said.
Desmarais’ children are more understanding and empathetic because of Lois, whom her 13-year-old daughter Sophia calls her sister.
“We appreciate all the stories she tells, for being a friend and night out buddy,” Sophia said.
It’s those stories of inspiration that keep MSL growing. From 2006 to today, the company expanded from just four participants to 63. Each story is different, but Program Manager Joanne Malise says each provides a different example of the benefits of individualized care.
“They amaze me,” she said of her clients. “This has made my life better.”
Angel Madera said he too feels better knowing he has helped Daisy, who has lived with him for over a year.
“Things weren’t going well for her. She makes me feel good because I’m helping her,” he said.
More rewarding, though, is what she brings to his life. Madera’s home “felt lonely” when his son left for the Marine Corps. Having previously met Daisy, and being familiar with shared living, he began to look into his options and soon had a new member of the family to care for.
“It’s amazing. That void is gone,” he said. “Daisy always does something to make us smile. She sees life from a different perspective and she really lights up a room.”
MENTOR families are compensated for delivering care. The individual pays room and board, as it is a requirement that they have their own bedroom and be provided with three meals a day. MSL families also receive a competitive daily stipend that varies depending on the individual’s funding level.
But as Ernestine Thomas will tell you, the money is irrelevant.
“It’s not about the money,” she said. “It’s about making a difference in someone’s life.”
For more information, visit www.ri-mentor.com or call 732-0304, or check them out on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RIMENTOR.