Glancing around their spacious new kitchen, Charmelle Cothran and Erika Gray were beaming with pride.
Cothran and Gray are both SouthSTAR clients and each is eager to enjoy more independence. The 26-year-old Gray plans to soon cook her speciality, fried chicken, for Cothran.
“I love to cook,” Cothran, 39, said.
Independence is the idea behind the apartment building, said Dan Strick, the CEO of SouthSTAR, a Chicago Heights agency that helps the developmentally disabled. Last year, SouthSTAR helped 471 clients, from ages 6 to 81, in 43 communities last year.
The building on 120th Place in Alsip has a three-bedroom apartment on the first floor and a pair of two-bedroom apartments on the second floor. There’s also a one-bedroom on the first floor for a staffer who will be there to offer help if needed, but independence is the theme.
Cothran works at a Culver’s restaurant and Gray works at SouthSTAR Services.
“I like to have a roommate I can talk to and get along with,” Gray said. “And I like to cook with a roommate and have my own place. It’s very nice here.”
Chester Kimple, 58, didn’t waste time grabbing the larger of two bedrooms in his upstairs apartment. Kimple, who works in housekeeping, likes his new digs. Kimple formerly lived at the Howe Developmental Center and in a group home.
Sitting at his kitchen table, Kimple said he’s looking forward to using the Dial-A-Ride service offered by PACE to get to and from work.
“I’m excited about living here,” he said. “And, I have my own room.”
The building was acquired last year by the Illinois Housing Development Authority and renovated using $590,000 in federal funding, Strick said. The agency paid the state $1 for the building, “a pretty good deal,” Strick deadpanned.
“This is nice,” Cothran said. “The neighborhood is nice. It’s quiet. We are safe here.”
Seven clients will eventually live in the building.
SouthSTAR staffer Alyssa Johnson will be in a one-bedroom apartment on the first floor to offer help “if they have any problems,” but these clients are on their own just like any apartment dweller in the south suburbs. When the rent and utility bills are due, they are expected to pay them.
“It’s been three years in the making. In February of 2009, the federal government started its Neighborhood Stabilization Program. The idea was to put money on the streets to get foreclosed properties back in circulation. We didn’t have a setting like this, a living option for people like Chester who were ready to be more independent. We approached at least a dozen municipalities and different funding sources,” he said.
“(It’s) probably the most expensive apartment building in the area right now because of all the renovation,” Strick said.
Safety was a concern, so the building has a fire sprinkler and an alarm system, along with strobe lights for hearing-impaired residents.
Mildred Simpson, SouthSTAR’s director of program services, said the agency is thrilled to offer “a great opportunity” for clients.
“It gives them a sense of independence,” Simpson said.
“They’ll be paying their own rent with their own money. They’re responsible for (buying) groceries. This is a huge step up for them. It means they actually have a really nice, well thought-out place to live. That all their wishes are coming true, their dreams about living independently in the community,” Simpson said.
There’s a need for more independent living options, Strick said.
“As we move away from institutions and get people more into the community, people with developmental disabilities are living much longer than they used to. This is the first generation where people with developmental disabilities are outliving their parents because of medical advances and being more involved in the community,” Strick said. “This apartment building is a great resource.”
One of the donors, Mary Jo Regan, of Chicago Heights, hopes her daughter can some day live in such a setting. Melissa, 31, is the youngest of five children of Mary Jo and Michael Regan. She’s a SouthSTAR client and works there answering phones.
“She loves it. She really does,” Regan said. “I was a receptionist for years, so it’s in the genes.”
Touring the building, she said, “It’s exciting, it’s wonderful, mission accomplished
Tony Paulauski Executive Director
The Arc of Illinois
20901 S. LaGrange Rd. Suite 209
Frankfort, IL 60423
815-464-1832 (CELL) Tony@www.thearcofil.org