Mike Harding eats the same lunch everyday — a peanut butter sandwich and a Twinkie washed down with a bottle of Mountain Dew.
For Harding, lunch is about choice, one of many life skills he is taught at Integration Plus, a supported living program for people with developmental disabilities that recently opened its third individualized supported living site in Columbia.
Todd Norris, executive director of the state-supported program, said this freedom leads to greater independence and enhances the residents’ quality of life. It also causes plenty of excitement on a day-to-day basis at Integration Plus’s three locations in Columbia on Broadway, Sylvan Lane and Primrose Drive, the latest addition.
“That’s one of the cool things about this job,” said Norris. “With all this chaos, I never get bored.”
After moving in early November from his mother’s home, Harding, 23, who has moderate mental retardation, is still getting settled into his new home, which he shares with a male roommate and two women who live downstairs in a separate apartment. His mom calls to check in every morning.
The transition to independent living can be stressful, said Mary Lynam, program coordinator at the Primrose Drive home. When a client comes to Integration Plus, behavioral and functional goals are set by a team of case managers, employees from Integration Plus and family members. Some clients can’t even shave or brush their teeth without assistance at first, she said.
“If you’ve been living with your mom for 26 years and she’s been taking care of you and doing every single thing for you, it can be really difficult to go to a place where the expectations are very high and you are expected to function as an adult,” Lynam said.
Unlike some group homes, Integration Plus lets its clients feel more like tenants than patients and ensures everyone has separate bedrooms. Rent is due on the first of the month, although payment varies depending on income. Residents are allowed to decorate any part of the duplex and have free reign over their bedrooms.
“We really try to give them the exact same opportunities they would have if they had come out and seen the house and rented it on their own,” Lynam said.
Although clients don’t get to pick whom they live with, they do get a chance to meet their roommates and the roommates’ families before moving in together.
“We try to choose individuals who have similar levels of functioning and who have similar interest,” Lynam said.
Integration Plus provides two types of residential services with 24-hour staff support. The short-term program, which lasts from nine to 15 months, serves children between age 6 and 17 with serious behavioral problems. The goal is to help stabilize the child’s behavior with the hope of reuniting the client with the family.
“The family is always very involved,” Norris said. “Typically (the kids) have had behavioral issues at home and parents have tried other services without the success they were looking for.”
Long-term services are provided for adults ages 17 to 35 who have not succeeded in other supportive living facilities. Assisting clients to develop as many skills as possible so they can live independently is the goal, said Norris, 31, an MU graduate.
“We are trying to give the opportunity for our clients to develop the skills that they need so they can take control over their lives,” said Norris, who first got involved with special education by coaching the Special Olympics. “We give them more choices, more opportunities to pursue goals.”
The program began in the early ’90s as part of the special education department at MU. A grant helped cover the costs of operating the Broadway home. Norris and his wife, Lori, took over the contract and founded Integration Plus as a corporation in July 2001 with help from the Department of Mental Health.
“There are several state-run facilities called habilitation centers that house several hundred individuals with developmental disabilities,” Norris said. “One of the goals of the DMH is to move these people into programs like ours. They have been working pretty hard with providers to make that happen.”
Since the takeover, Norris added behavioral therapy, respite and personal assistant services to the program, as well as two more individualized supported living sites, serving a total of 25 families. The Sylvan home opened in May 2004.
“We excited about the expansion,” Lynam said. “People who are coming here are coming from more restrictive environments with rigid rules and routines. Now they have the chance to see how they will do on their own without most of the prompting.”