Celebrating independence

Local program offers the disabled a chance to be part of the community while living life on their own terms

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Unlike most games, the score wasn't that important.

The game was played for fun, a little recreation and a good time on a warm summer day.

The game was put together by Horizons Specialized Services, which over the years has developed a unique partnership with Moffat County.

Horizons works with local families and the community to broaden the opportunities for people with developmental disabilities.

The players consisted of a group of Horizons clients and volunteers. Those clients included members of a Horizons program called Supported Living Systems (SLS).

Supported Living Systems is designed to link services and support, with other common supports, such as friends, volunteers and co-workers, and public services to ensure that adults with developmental disabilities have the necessary means and assistance to be included in everyday community life.

Developmental disabilities can include any conditions, including those that stem from a brain injury to cerebral palsy. Many developmental disabilities are the result of birth defects.

"It's about getting our guys included into the community," said Kelly Pierce, Horizons' day program/vocational specialist and Supported Living Systems coordinator. "It is about giving them services that they can't get anywhere else."

The Supported Living Systems' main focus is on behavioral training, which addresses specific behavior needs, and supplying the necessary support framework to provide access to community life, such as employment, volunteer programs, shopping and participation in social events like Thursday's softball game.

The Supported Living Systems program offers 14 different services for clients, including personal care services, mentorship, home modification, supported employment and supported living consultation.

What is unique about Supported Living Systems is the clients create their own program.

"It solely focuses on their choices. And we honor those choices.," said Dorothy Thomas, Horizons' adult community coordinator.

Thomas said the program became a necessity because clients often times had no other alternatives.

"Government funding is limited and it's not a priority in this area, and never has been," Thomas said. "The school system is obligated by the federal government to provide services through age 21. After that, it falls to agencies such as Horizons or to the family. So the state created the supported living service to fill that gap. Though we have all ages in the program, it is more so for young people coming out of the school system because residential services aren't available."

Residential services provides housing and 24-hour staff supervision.

Thomas said there is currently a long enough waiting list for residential services that if a child was born today with developmental disabilities, it is recommended the child be put on a waiting list at the time of birth. The reason being, there is no guarantee that a service will available when that child turns 21.

"You will see some families who have kept their children at home and they've never put them on a waiting list," Thomas said. "It's especially common in rural areas."

As a result of that waiting list, the Supported Living Systems program was developed.

"Many continue to live at home and stay on waiting lists for residential services," Thomas said. "So Supported Living Systems is really focused on the people that are on those waiting lists. People stay living at home for a number of years. But more and more families want their adult child to be as independent as they can. They want to see them in group homes or transitioned into their own apartment."

The program supports them in being independent and helps them transition into the community. Thomas said.

"If your adult child required services and they needed to learn to cook, to balance a checkbook and to find a job; their services would be specific to what they needed," Thomas said. "The program is designed to connect them to the community, so that they're not isolated from where they live."

Susan Miezen, the executive director of Horizons, said it's hard to predict how long clients will remain on the waiting list.

Miezen said the current wait is approximately three years.

Horizons currently serves 14 Supported Living Systems clients.

Cathy Barnhart's son, Nichols, recently joined the program.

"I think the program is great," Barnhart said. "It gives all of these kids and adults a chance to have fun and feel good about themselves. It builds their self-esteem."

Barnhart said she has already noticed a change in her son.

"It makes me feel good to see that my son feels good about something," Barnhart said. "He feels like he's a grown-up now. He has a social group to interact with, and they have a good time together; they've reached a point in their life where the program gives them sense of independence. And that's something, for a lot of us parents, because you wonder if they're ever going to reach that point."

Nichols primarily uses the social recreation component of the Supported Living Systems program. Thomas said, after meeting with Nichols and his mother, they determined which activities he most liked to do. Nichols chose listening to music, bike riding, fishing and

swimming.

"And those are the things that we'll plug in," Thomas said. "Then, with his special needs, his mom is going to in-service staff so that we can provide the safest program possible."

For Barnhart, a change was necessary.

"This is the beginning of another stage in his life," she said. "And he needs to somewhat break the apron strings from mom a little bit because someday I won't be here. He needs to be able to be OK and function without me. And it has to start now because it's a long process to get there."

Both Thomas and Pierce said they have been pleased with the program's results.

"It's a wonderful program," Thomas said. "We have a real good, creative staff. And if you can get good creative staff that will stay with you, you can produce quality programming."

"It's been very successful," Pierce said. "It does get the people involved in the community. We have a young man who's been in the program since he's been 21. He's now 25, and he's matured over the years. He can go into the community now. He used to be kind of dreaded because he was very in-your-face, and now he's more mature and knows how to deal with things more appropriately."

Mike Adams has been an Supported Living Systems client for five years. He mainly uses the Supported Living Systems' vocational and money-management services. The program has also helped him find employment.

"They found me job," Adams said. "There doing OK this year for me. It's (the program) great. I love it dearly."

Thomas said much of the program's success is owed to the Craig community.

"We can't successfully include our folks or find opportunities for them if doors aren't opened," Thomas said.

"And this community has been phenomenally supportive."

However, the program does face some obstacles.

Thomas said budget cuts in the human services, limited resources and staff turnover are the biggest challenges the program faces.

The Supported Living Systems is staffed by 10 Horizons employees.

Still, the program relies on volunteers.

"Without volunteers, you don't have a quality program," Thomas said. "Whether it's group (volunteers) or individual; taking someone fishing or taking someone out for coffee, building relationships is critical."

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