By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 1, 2014
TUCKER—Joshua Newhard joins the threesome around the round table preparing dinner, where one tears apart lettuce, and another slices green and red peppers for a salad. In the kitchen, Lisa Malak turns the canned tomato sauce into marinara for spaghetti, the night’s entrée.
“I used to do this when I worked in the back. Now, I’m a host. I greet people,” said 36-year-old Joshua, about his former job wielding a knife to dice vegetables at a local chain restaurant.
Lisa stands at the kitchen sink and pours the sauce into a bowl, rinsing out the cans with a splash of water to get every last bit for the sauce.
“We help prepare and cook the food. We are a family. We love being around with each other and being with each other’s company,” said Lisa, who works a few days a week at a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store.
It’s Wednesday, when these adults with intellectual disabilities gather to cook, swap stories about working in a local school cafeteria and make plans together for soccer practice.
Three adults and a caretaker live in the split-level, four-bedroom house, but the doors are thrown open weekly to other clients of a seven-year-old private nonprofit agency dedicated to people with trouble reasoning and learning.
The founder of St. Mary’s Independent Living Extensions envisions a future when every parish in the Atlanta Archdiocese is a spiritual home for people with special needs living in its community. And homes like this one are open around the archdiocese.
“We want dignity, we want inclusion,” said Paul Pieper, the executive director, sitting in his small Lilburn office.
The growing agency wants to be an advocate for Catholic parents with children in need of special help. St. John Neumann Church, Lilburn, has been supportive of the vision.
St. Mary’s Independent Living Extensions (SMILE) was founded with the leadership of Nancy Bernard, an early benefactor of the program, who has since passed away, and Pieper. They came from a social service background and saw a need to develop a nonprofit guided by Catholic values.
In fact, the organization’s name came from their dedication to the Blessed Mother, said Pieper, who is discerning a vocation to the permanent diaconate. A large crucifix and a drawing of St. Mary, along with crayon drawings by clients, decorate the walls of a small office.
Until the age of 22, Georgians with disabilities are helped by the public school system. Then parents are left to find other support services. It can be a stressful time, as parents scramble to find the best resources to allow their children to thrive and, if possible, move to independence, he said.
There are some 1.1 million Georgians with disabilities, with nearly 500,000 in the Atlanta-Marietta area, according to the American Community Survey. About 100,000 adults between 18 and 64 have cognitive difficulties, meaning they have difficulty remembering, concentrating, or making decisions, estimates the 2012 survey.
The Archdiocese of Atlanta dedicates a ministry for women, men and children with disabilities. It encourages preparing people with disabilities to receive first Communion and other sacraments. It advocates for their participation in Mass as altar servers, as choir members, as lectors. The ministry also hosts the annual Toni’s Camp, a weekend away filled with activities for children and adults with disabilities. Bishop David Talley, an auxiliary bishop in the archdiocese, is a leader of Toni’s Camp and is a director of the nonprofit SMILE, which is not an archdiocesan ministry.
Educating Catholic parents about resources
St. Mary’s Independent Living Extensions supports adults living in their own homes, in addition to a day care program. The nonprofit’s mission is focused on “maximizing independence, breaking down barriers and advocating for greater community access.” The agency is certified by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities. It is licensed by the Georgia Department of Community Health as a private home care provider.
The agency has outgrown its brick house on Lilburn’s Main Street. Later this spring, it’s scheduled to move into larger facilities at St. Marguerite d’Youville Church, Lawrenceville.
Pieper founded the organization and focuses most of his energy now on spreading the word about the organization. He discovered when he formed the agency how little knowledge there is in the Catholic community about resources for parents and caregivers of people with special needs.
Part of its mission is to educate parents about programs that help people with disabilities to live independently, such as the Medicaid waiver program. The waiting list for the federal assistance program, which subsidizes the cost of care, can be years long so part of the process is spurring people to be strong advocates, he said.
Lynne Studer directs SMILE’s day-to-day operations.
A mother of two, she got involved when her youngest daughter, who is autistic, was turned away from a Catholic school because it didn’t offer programs for her. Studer channeled the disappointment and anger into becoming a zealous supporter not only of her daughter, but all children and adults who are developmentally delayed.
“I just feel she deserves everything every child does,” she said, adding she brings her passion as a mom to her role watching out for the SMILE clients.
“If it’s not good enough for my child, it’s not good enough for any child,” she said. “It’s not just my job. I understand where they are coming from,” she said, adding parents have nonstop worry about their children.
Embracing independence, goals for clients
Parents and caregivers applauded SMILE for its approach, allowing the adults a measure of independence.
Mary Ellen Hesla, who lives in Colorado, watches out for her older sister, who has been with SMILE for four years.
“When she has concerns, they are actually heard,” said Hesla, a nurse.
Her 59-year-old sister lives on her own and rides the bus to her job as a teacher’s aide, so her needs are “to make her feel more part of the community.”
“They are very committed to trying to accommodate her wishes,” Hesla said.
Carl McKinney, a retired special education teacher, and his wife, Patti, said their son has progressed in achieving his goals.
“SMILE has done more in six months then the other program did in 13 years. He’s learning new skills,” he said.
Their son grew up in Griffin, about 40 miles south of Atlanta. Other agencies weren’t as helpful. A previous service wouldn’t help get their son to Mass, which is important to them. Now, he attends St. John Neumann Church, Lilburn, regularly.
“He’s 28 years old. He needs to be on his own,” McKinney said.
SMILE’S new facility, at 85 Gloster Road in Lawrenceville, will be able to serve as many as 40 students. Four refurbished classrooms will be places where students can work on computers, play games and socialize with each other. Currently, 27 people are served by the program.
SMILE supports four apartments where people with disabilities live. The agency views its employees as guests helping the clients.
“We are servants in their home,” Pieper said. “It’s so important we don’t get away from that.”
Another way the agency respects the adults is in their choices on matters of faith. Agency leaders said parents are concerned about many things, and one is passing on the family faith tradition.
Pieper said SMILE embraces those traditions, whether Catholic, Protestant, or no faith. The key is the adult clients make the decision, and those choices are respected, he said. If a person wants to attend a Catholic Mass, the agency works to make that happen; in the same way if a client wants to attend a Jewish religious service, a mosque, or a Protestant church, those wishes are followed, he said.
At the suburban home, Joshua, Lisa and others fill the couch and wingback chairs in the living room. They talk about Lent and list what they are thankful for.
Joshua, wearing a gray sweatshirt and blue jeans, talks about how much fun he had singing in the church choir. He is also moving soon to a new SMILE home. He wanted everyone to know that just because he isn’t living here, he’ll still be part of SMILE and will see people often. “I learned a lot in the house, from everyone,” he said.
Casey Brennan talks excitedly about how she’s looking forward to upcoming soccer practice. Brennan, 39, who has on a turtleneck and a navy sweatshirt with an American flag decorating the sleeve, works in a school district cafeteria, after many years at a nearby grocery store. She goes bowling, plays soccer, and dances. For Lent, she’s tried to stay away from cookies and Coke.
In a few minutes, they form a circle to say grace and then tuck into the dinner they cooked.