Institutional housing no more: new life begins for region's disabled men

Jack Abbott gives a high five to Jeanne Miller, director of the program for developmentally disabled men formerly based at Don Guanella. Families worried about the big move, but Abbott said of his new home: "I love it."
Jack Abbott gives a high five to Jeanne Miller, director of the program for developmentally disabled men formerly based at Don Guanella. Families worried about the big move, but Abbott said of his new home: "I love it."
Posted: July 09, 2014

Standing inside his new home in Swarthmore, Jack Abbott admired the Phillies poster being hung above his bed and surveyed the freshly painted room.

"I love it," said Abbott, 59.

It is his first new home since age 6, when he moved into Don Guanella Village, a facility for developmentally disabled men in Delaware County. Last week, Abbott and seven other men left the campus for a smaller, free-standing home.

By July 2015, the Don Guanella Village property will belong to a developer, and its 128 residents will have scattered to about a dozen homes across the region.

The 200-acre campus alongside Cardinal O'Hara High School in Marple Township has been a fixture in Delaware County for a half-century. Most of its residents are middle-aged men, such as Abbott, who grew up on the grounds.

Its closure and sale marks a shift away from institutional settings as homes for the developmentally disabled. It also comes as the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is looking to shed properties and cut its losses.

Don Guanella Village operated at a deficit of $1.5 million in 2012 and $5.8 million in 2013, according to financial reports from the archdiocese.

The property along Sproul Road could fetch millions. A sales agreement has not yet been finalized, said archdiocesan spokesman Kenneth A. Gavin.

The property was marketed for a mix of commercial and residential use, said Marple Township Manager Anthony Hamaday. Interested developers have contacted the township, Hamaday said, and the archdiocese could announce an agreement with its chosen developer this month.

Housing the developmentally disabled in institutional settings is no longer considered acceptable by the state, and state officials had pushed the archdiocese to move the men to smaller homes in the community. Officials were "clear with us that this is the way the field is moving," said James Amato, deputy secretary for Catholic Social Services.

Amato said the archdiocese's other facilities for the developmentally disabled - Divine Providence Village, a campus for women down the road from Don Guanella, and St. Edmond's Home for Children in Rosemont - will remain open.

At the new homes, which will still be operated by the archdiocese, the men will function more like a family unit, helping to do chores and prepare meals.

"Individuals with an intellectual disability and their family members want to have an everyday life that is typical of the general population," said Kait Gillis, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Welfare, in a statement.

The village was named for St. Luigi Guanella, an Italian priest who founded the religious order that started the Marple campus.

Men from Delaware, Philadelphia, Montgomery, and Chester Counties are placed into Don Guanella Village by their county social service agencies. The program is open to men of all religions, though Amato said about 80 percent of the men are Catholic.

The operation had been cited for violations by the state in recent years, including a revocation of its license that was later restored. Amato said the state's issues with the facility were mostly centered on one building on campus that housed four men per bedroom.

Still, the move has been met with anxiety from some families.

"First we thought ... 'Oh my God, what are they doing to us?' " said Abbott's 79-year-old mother, Mary Purcell. But she felt at ease on moving day last week as her son settled in and happily kissed her goodbye when she left to eat dinner. He wanted to stay and eat at his new house, where he was thrilled to see sauerkraut on the menu.

Jeanne Dowling's 42-year-old son John has Down syndrome and has lived at Don Guanella Village since age 6.

"He said, 'I'm not moving. ... I'm going to take my staff, and we're going to go on vacation,' " Dowling said.

Dowling had organized a group of parents that met with representatives from the archdiocese. They did not succeed in keeping the center open, but they did give input about where their sons would be placed.

Her biggest concern remains whether the men will have as many activities to keep them busy as they did at Don Guanella Village. There, they walked from their cottages to bingo games, dances, and their daytime workshop. Now they will ride in a car to those activities.

"I can say for one person ... it has worked out beautifully," said Sue Clark of West Chester, whose brother, Bobby Sauter, moved into a home in Downingtown this spring.

Clark said Sauter, 67, gets more personal attention in Downingtown, where two staff members are always on duty to care for the three residents. At Don Guanella Village, he had his own bedroom but shared a cottage with 12 other men.

The families that went through the change last week were encouraged by the positive reaction from the men, who showed each other their rooms and shared high fives as they learned to set the dinner table for the first time.

"It's looking good," Dowling said. "And then the next step is how this is all going to work. We're in a nice house, but how are we going to work from here?"



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