Community Options Inc. Is Meeting Special Need in Little Egg Harbor, Stafford Townships

By Pat Johnson | Oct 23, 2019
Photo by: Pat Johnson GRATEFUL: Ted Cook (front) has found a permanent home through Community Options of South Jersey. With him are staff members, including state regional director Diane D’Orazio (at left), staff Michelle Salowe,Mae Exner and Kazi Schaffer.

Southern Ocean County — Community Options Inc. offers permanent housing in staffed group homes for those of our most vulnerable citizens: those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Some have aged out of their family home; others have languished in institutions; those who are lucky now have the security and the benefits of living in a house or apartment and the chance to live independent lives.

Diane D’Orazio is state director for the southern half of New Jersey encompassing Mercer, Ocean, Burlington, Camden, Cumberland, Gloucester, Salem, Cape May and Atlantic counties. There are 130 group homes run by Community Options in New Jersey; in Ocean County there are 21 group homes serving 57 clients.

One of these is Ted Cook, a man who whistles and sings as he cleans the Community Options offices located in Forked River. Cook came to have his own apartment when he was accepted into the program June 30, 2009.

“He is very good with dates,” said D’Orazio as she gently quizzed Cook on whether he would tell his story for the newspaper. “I’m not in trouble, am I?” he questioned, and when told no, he began to speak loudly about his “no good father” who put him in an institution when he was 11 years old. “I didn’t belong there. He told me I would be there until I was 95 years old.”

Cook said he escaped a number of times from an institution in North Jersey, and then Ancora Psychiatric Hospital – “I didn’t belong there” – and later, Woodbine Juvenile Facility.

Now he is happy in his own apartment, located in Barnegat. “I love it here,” he repeatedly said.

When he first came to Community Options, he was placed in a group home, but it was apparent he could not tolerate others in his living situation.

“Ted likes living alone; he’s very organized and doesn’t like living with others,” said D’Orazio. “We pay attention to verbal and non-verbal communications and try different things when we can.”

“We tailor each program to the person. There is no cookie-cutter program that fits all,” said Assistant Executive Director Dan Kelly.

Cook makes minimum wage for his cleaning work. He volunteers at the Barnegat branch of the Ocean County Library and the Tuckerton Seaport, where he helps clean. He has his own TV and kitchen, where he prefers to make meals in the microwave.

Other individuals prefer living arrangements in group homes that house up to four at the most, with three being the norm. Each group home schedules monthly activities including arts and crafts, gardening, household chores, movies and other fun activities. “Our job is to get them as much community inclusion as possible,” said D’Orazio.

All clients go to a day program in Manchester where they learn skills and do some work for pay. “They have community-based volunteer work with Meals on Wheels, Lacey Chamber of Commerce and Ocean County Park at Wells Mills. They can get skills on their resume. We have one client working as a receptionist learning office skills, and another works at the Shore Fire Grill.”

Becoming part of the community helps to build self-esteem.

There are two group homes in Little Egg Harbor Township, and Stafford Township recently gave land and $200,000 to Community Options toward building two group homes in Ocean Acres. In return Stafford gets a two-for-one credit in meeting its affordable housing goals set by the state’s Department of Community Affairs, which took over from the Council on Affordable Housing, disbanded in 2017.

Community Options is planning an open house for sometime this fall for the first of the homes. Kelly said the first resident is already settled in and is planning on baking for the event.

“When we moved her in, we unpacked all her baking pans and equipment. She was so excited with the kitchen. She hopes someday to work in a bakery or own her own bakery,” he said.

Sometimes there is pushback from communities when they hear the word “group home,” but that comes from a lack of understanding, said Kelly. “Once they meet the residents, they realize they are not criminals or going to lower their property values. They are responsible, and we have one to two in-home support staff at all times with them.”

Support staff are fingerprinted and drug-tested. They are trained in CPR and medication dispensing and in preventing abuse and neglect. They get trained in safe driving techniques, as they take clients grocery shopping, to doctor’s appointments and on activities. They are also trained in “gentle teaching,” a non-intrusive way of interaction. “We want our clients to feel safe and loved,” said D’Orazio.

If there is one problem that D’Orazio wished she could fix, it would be raising the salaries of support staff. “The problem is in the state budget,” she said.

On Sept. 7, the Department of Human Services was given an additional $36 million to support higher wages for community providers of developmentally disability services, but that results in just a 25-cent an hour raise, bringing the wage to $11.50, said D’Orazio. “It’s a minimum wage salary for a job that is not a minimum wage job,” she said.

So employee turnover is a problem, but once someone works with a group home for a few months, they get attached to the people and stay, she added.

All nonprofits need to raise money. Community Options has two big fundraisers on the calendar: a Designer Bag Gift Auction on Dec. 6, at the Lacey Community Town Hall and a Cupid’s Chase 5K in Seaside Heights on Feb. 8. For more information, go to comop.org. Funds raised go toward providing additional fun activities such as attending ballgames and to add or replace furnishings in the group homes.

The need is great for more group home start-ups. “The state was focused on depopulating the institutions, but now they are looking at the waiting list that is currently eight years out (someone wanting a placement may have to wait eight years for one). There are parents worried about the long-term care of their adult children as they themselves get older,” said D’Orazio.

“The cases where a parent dies and an adult child is homeless gets priority,” said Kelly.

“It’s a story of real need,” D’Orazio added.

— Pat Johnson

patjohnson@thesandpaper.net

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