Playing UNO, and I got smoked. Didn’t win one time.

Written by Heather Heier, Manager of Communications and Events

Last week we shared more with you about the history of institutions, ICF/IDD homes, and waivers. Back in February we introduced you to our Southcrest home in Edina. And if you have read the Star Tribune recently or catch the evening news, you know our industry is facing a major staffing shortage. This blog post shares more on all those topics. This is a story of how they magically came together in a perfect example of why we do what we do at Living Well.

If you read last week’s story, it was all about the changes in disability care over the past five plus decades. How care went from nearly 1,500 people in large, sterile, cold, and sad institutions, to smaller places with 100 or less people, to the model we see today of four person or smaller homes with revolving staff. The reason care has changed so significantly is because over time it became obvious that we all do better when we are in smaller home environments. People with disabilities thrive when provided with one-on-one care versus only having access to group outings. The changes were essential to helping people with disabilities live a rich and full lives. It took a lot of work to get where we are today. Legislation, teamwork on every level, advocacy, and tenacity were part of the journey at every step. But the goal was always the same, integration into community, experiencing one’s best life, being a part of society and being seen as interesting and unique humans who happen to have disabilities, not disabled people who should be hidden away.

When we gave a sneak peek of the Southcrest home it was obvious the house is special for many reasons, including the beautiful way Corbin, Katie, Leo and Rob live together seamlessly, and love each other like family. And how the people who care and advocate for them do so because the work matters and the people who live there deserve to be cared for, supported, and truly seen. It is a gorgeous home in a quiet suburban neighborhood, with friendly neighbors and lots of things close by to explore. But these days, Southcrest is also notable because it is severely understaffed, and many have been working doubles to keep the crew happy and content. With the staffing crisis, which is not unique to our industry but challenging us at significant levels, the leadership team recently asked Northland office staff to consider pitching in and working in the homes a couple hours when possible. This was asked to help relieve the stress on the staff and provide them a break for a couple hours when possible. The Southcrest home is just a few miles away from my house, so I figured it would be a good opportunity to help and to learn more about the work that Direct Support Professionals do. It was the easiest decision I probably ever made to sign up for a couple hours a few Saturdays ago.

Enjoying the neighborhood with a walk.

In truth, it was a blast. I helped clean Katie’s room, took a walk with the whole crew, and sat out in the sunny yard listening to stories and laughing. I felt like I could have done more, but here’s the best part—turns out chatting and walking are part of the job. Sharing space and time with people who are not always included is one of the reasons group homes were created. One on one time is key to being part of community, having support and being involved in the bigger picture. I liked it so much that last weekend I did another few hours. I cleaned Leo’s room with him, played UNO, and helped with laundry. It was amazing. But what happened just as I was leaving is when the magic truly happened.

Corbin, PM Natalie, Rob, Leo and Katie our front, enjoying Katie’s happy place.

As I got into my minivan, a Mercedes sedan pulled up two cars ahead of me, facing the wrong way, and the driver was clearly connecting with Katie. As we learned in the initial story about the home, Katie loves to be outside. All year long you can find her out in the yard, building snow towers when it is cold, playing games when it is warm, and generally being in her happy place. I have no idea what they were saying and admittedly did not know of who was in the car. I was told she waves to walkers and is a bit of a celebrity in the neighborhood. So, I immediately assumed it was a friendly grandpa type stopping to say hi. But when the car pulled away and I got a look at the driver, I was almost stunned to see the driver was young man, probably 16-18 years old. At that moment my heart swelled, and I might have cried it was that beautiful. A young man, on a busy Saturday, took the time to stop and say hi to his neighbor. That kid made a difference by simply seeing someone all too often marginalized and othered by people. He saw Katie as worthy of his time and attention. It was beautiful. I called my mom on the way home and said I was misty eyed, that it was the most amazing two minutes of my life. I said that I wished I had followed him home to tell his parents how excited I am to know that they are raising such an incredible human. I wanted to hug his family and say, “job well done, you did it, you win parenting!!”

When people ask me why I do what I do—that interaction at Southcrest is the WHY. Advocacy feels important. With each of our homes, we are building community and creating an army of advocates, and I am in awe of the staff who work in the houses. You will find me Saturday taking Leo to Target to get new sheets. And I am bringing my 10-year-old, because he likes making new friends, playing UNO, and Target trips probably even more than I do.