A home through decades

Jeanne Dowling of West Chester with son John at Don Guanella Village. John, 40, has lived at the campus in Marple since he was 10.
Jeanne Dowling of West Chester with son John at Don Guanella Village. John, 40, has lived at the campus in Marple since he was 10. (RITA GIORDANO / Staff)

Plan to close Don Guanella worries clients' families.

Posted: January 28, 2013

When the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced it planned to close Don Guanella Village, a residential campus for the intellectually disabled it has operated for more than 50 years, it said it was acting in the best interests of the residents by moving them into community-based care.

But to families of the men who live on the Marple campus - some have been there most of their lives - the plans were anything but welcome. They say they feel as let down and worried about their relatives' futures as they are grateful for the care given over the years.

"It's not an institution. They have a wonderful life there," said Jeanne Dowling, head of the Don Guanella Family Association, listing her son John's many activities on and off campus. A resident since age 6, John, 40, is one of 128 men and six youths for whom it is home.

Family members complain that church representatives did not disclose their plans until the fall - more than a year after, the archdiocese said, they proposed them to the state.

"They should have given the parents some indication a year ago when they started looking into it," said Rich Russo, 73, a retired account manager from Havertown. His son Rick, 47, has been a resident 23 years.

"Lied to and betrayed," said Janis Bonczewski, 58, a retired teacher from Westtown whose son Andrew, 26, is a four-year resident.

The families suspect money from the possible sale of the 200-acre complex may be a motive for the proposed changes.

In the larger picture, the proposal fit into a national movement toward more inclusive, community-based living for people like their loved ones, but the impacts are deeply personal.

"This is a very complicated issue," said Frank Bartoli, director of the Arc of Delaware County, an advocacy group for the developmentally disabled.

Although Arc supports community living over congregate care - the Marple campus has the Cardinal Krol Center with four-bed rooms as well as cottages - the agency has agreed to advocate and mediate for the families.

"I think the real issue is the parents don't feel they are involved in the process," Bartoli said.

He added: "Nobody's asking the residents what they want."

James Amato, deputy secretary of Catholic Social Services for the Archdiocese, conceded the matter could have been handled differently.

"It wasn't done in the ideal way," he said, adding that he had begun bimonthly meetings with the family group.

The "best practices" principle for the disabled is guiding the proposal to close Don Guanella and build eight group homes, provided the necessary state funding is granted, Amato said. Though the state did not order the changes, it had expressed a concern that the men should be housed in the community rather than in an institutional setting, Amato and state Department of Public Welfare spokeswoman Donna Morgan said.

Finances are also a factor. This fiscal year, the campus has a projected $1.6 million deficit and is underused, Amato said. Provided the archdiocese proceeds with the plan, he said, it will likely put the campus on the market.

If the archdiocese gets the money for the new homes - it has requested about $4 million for the first four and will put in for the others if the request is granted - they would house 64 men.

Still unknown is where the other half of the men will be placed. Among them are likely to be some of the most profoundly disabled or medically vulnerable. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, in a letter to the families, promised safe placements for all, and Amato said that the men won't be going to nursing homes and that he doesn't believe they will be put in state hospitals. But family members say they do not feel assured.

Rose DelleMonache, 53, a Drexel Hill nurse, dreads breaking the news to her brother Luigi, 48, if he has to leave the campus where he has lived since he was 10.

"They're saying 'best practice.' It isn't best practice for everyone," DelleMonache said. "Twenty-five years ago it might have been best practice. Our guys were young."

She worries that he will get fewer services, and because people with Down syndrome are at higher risk for dementia, that he'll end up in a state facility.

"It would kill him," she said.

Jeanne Dowling, 69, of West Chester, remembers the day 34 years ago when her son John, who was in an overcrowded, chaotic schoolroom, went to live on the Marple campus.

Although leaving him was heart-breaking, she said, Don Guanella was a better alternative and would care for him after she and her husband were gone.

John, she said, now has many friends. She has photographs of him in a Don Guanella holiday play, at a dance with a date.

Asked recently whether he would like to move off campus, his reply was quick:

"No, thank you."

Contact Rita Giordano at 610-313-8232, rgiordano@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ritagiordano.

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