A Place of Their Own

The second phase of construction at Jacob’s Village, which will more than double the housing for residents, is under way.

Six new duplexes — all ADA compliant — are planned. They will include six one-bedroom and six two-bedroom units, “allowing us to more than double the number of people we support here,” said Jacob’s Village president and CEO Cheryl Kuchna. Currently there are 10 residents and room for one more.

More importantly, as the village expands and includes gardens and mediation areas, it is becoming the neighborhood Andy and Charmie Guagenti envisioned for families who need assurance that their disabled loved ones will have quality care and a place to live all their lives.

The Guagentis — with the support of a cadre of like-minded friends and business leaders — were instrumental in the development of Jacob’s Village, a community for functionally disabled adults, named for their grandson, and located on 132 acres of largely undeveloped land on Evansville’s far West Side.

The mission statement is simple: ” … to develop a safe walkable neighborhood community where people with disabilities and older adults can find meaningful relationships, housing that is affordable and accessible and activities that encourage active minds and bodies,” Kuchna said.

“We are small. We have that sense of neighborhood, community. Residents get to know their neighbors, and they get to do things together,” she said.

It is the natural order of things that children will outlive their parents.

But for parents of special-needs children, the notion that their children will outlive them is nightmarish. The universal question is: Who will care for their loved one when they are gone?

This worst-case scenario became predominate in the minds of the Guagentis 26 years ago, after the birth of their grandson, Jacob Grunow.

Jacob was born with Down syndrome. Jacob lives with loving parents and has a supportive extended family; he is financially secure. But what if he wasn’t? And even with that kind of security, what if he outlives his entire family? He is not able to live independently.

This thinking haunted the Guagentis: “It took us off-guard, focusing in on the key: ‘What happens when I’m gone?'” Andy Guagenti said.

As that thought settled in, so did the desire to do something about it. “Parents do not want to give up their kids, they want them home as long as possible,” Andy Guagenti said. But then, he said, reality sets in.

The average age (of adults living with disabilities who find themselves in need of housing arrangements after their families can no longer provide) is 50.

The State of Indiana estimates that there are more than 14,000 Hoosiers with developmental disabilities who are living with caregivers over age 62.

Ten years of planning and execution became a reality in 2004 when the first residents moved in to Jacob’s Village.

Far from an institutional setting, residents at Jacob’s Village quickly came to consider themselves at home; they live in fully-equipped, ADA-compliant apartments. They have roommates, each with their own bedroom; there are four bedrooms in each apartment.

At last year’s Christmas party, Charmie Guagenti recalled one new resident.

“She had only been there for a couple of weeks,” being concerned that she might not be going back (to Jacob’s Village) after the party. “She told her mother she didn’t want to go home!” Charmie Guagenti said.

“She loves it there. She wanted to be there.”

And that is exactly what Jacob’s Village is all about, Kuchna said.

“They are doing things they didn’t get to do before,” added Charmie Guagenti. “They just love it. Volunteers take them to ball games, movies, they get to go to church, Bible study, lots of things they never did before (and) they love it. It is heartwarming.”

Dodie VanHooser of Evansville shares the Guagentis’ enthusiasm for Jacob’s Village. She survived an automobile accident in the late 1960s that killed her parents and left her older sister, Diana, with severe developmental disabilities. She was five; her sister was nine. The girls lived with various family members for several years, but Diana’s injuries and subsequent behavioral issues made caring for her at home increasingly difficult. When family could no longer provide a safe environment, Diana was institutionalized.

“She spent nearly 30 years at the Evansville State Hospital,” VanHooser said. No one was happy.

“I heard about Jacob’s Village when they first started talking about it, but at that time it was private pay and we did not have the resources.

“When the State of Indiana shut down all developmental units at state-run facilities (including Evansville State Hospital) and introduced the Developmental Disabilities Waiver (administered through Indiana Medicaid), we contacted (Jacob’s Village) right away,” VanHooser said. Diana moved there in 2011.

“There are other residential providers (in the area), companies that place these adults in mainstream apartments, with roommates (and professional caregivers), the big difference with Jacob’s Village is the sense of community,” VanHooser said.

“My sister has the opportunity to develop relationships with her neighbors; I believe she has a much more fulfilling life because of these relationships, getting outside, visiting and enjoying activities together. I don’t worry about her safety.”

VanHooser said she sees her sister a lot (but) “She has three housemates. She helps plan menus and shops for food. They go to the movies together.

“The entire community gets out; there’s karaoke, the circus, high school musicals and Bible study. They are always on the go!”

Additional details of the expansion will be released next week.

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Source: Evansville Courier & Press