- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

Dannitta Jenkins has longed for a home to call her own. Not a dingy, dark room or a noisy dorm setting, but some place where she could reflect, read fairy tales to her toddler son, Richie, and shut out the world for a while.

Many a night, the young mother has dreamed of such a home to putter about surrounded by her cherished photographs and posters, keepsakes and knickknacks.

“I’ve always wanted a place of my own — I’ve lived in transitional housing, and I’ve lived in a room inside a home for pregnant women in Northwest,” Ms. Jenkins, 29, says.

Although she can maneuver through bustling city streets and move without notice from here to there, she has been diagnosed as mentally retarded with an emotional level of a 6-year-old.

Thanks to a new D.C. residential service program that helps developmentally disabled individuals get into mainstream society, Ms. Jenkins now has a tastefully appointed, airy, two-bedroom apartment in Southeast.

“I consider myself fortunate and blessed. I never imagined this would happen to me,” says Ms. Jenkins, a native Washingtonian and a special education student at Bethesda Chevy Chase High School who received a certificate in 1993.

“This apartment was a gift — I love my home,” she says.

The petite, soft-spoken woman with a dazzling smile says she owes her new digs and positive outlook on life to PSI Family Services Inc., a nonprofit human services agency in Bethesda that teamed up last year with the District’s Department of Human Services. PSI offers affected individuals and their families a chance to integrate into the community by living in their own apartments with top-notch supervision that is individually tailored to meet the person’s needs.

Yvonne Ali, PSI’s executive administrator since 1980, says the agency has assisted people with mental illnesses, developmental disabilities and psychological problems resulting from abuse and neglect. PSI offers a variety of programs, including foster care, day programs for adults, and early intervention programs for infants and young children. Last year, the organization, which was founded in 1979, decided to promote a better quality of life for people with developmental disabilities through integration into the community.

“PSI went into residential [services] because we did not like the group-home model, and we wanted to maximize people’s potential and integrate them into the community by living in apartments or private homes in the community of their choice,” says Ms. Ali, who holds a doctorate in child psychology and special education.

“It gives people a certain amount of independence and ownership. We all need ties; we all need history. And we all need to say this is ‘my home.’ A key that opens [a door] is so important for people. At one time, some individuals with developmental disabilities did not have that,” she says.

Antoine McClure, PSI’s residential director, applauds the city agencies for enabling the person-centered, apartment-style living, and he’s proud of the way the program is progressing.

“Our Residential Service Program is a giant step forward for preserving the rights of the developmentally disabled. We help them raise their children, maintain relationships with their spouses and enjoy life with dignity,” he says.

Not only does Ms. Jenkins have a home with all of the modern amenities, she has the added benefit of Carolyn Washington, a certified nursing assistant with 23 years of experience, and Adeleaka McMillan, the residential coordinator.

The two women serve as 12-hour companions, friends and mentors who help Ms. Jenkins with parenting skills, scheduling doctor’s appointments, compiling shopping lists, offering cooking tips and good solid advice on how to maneuver through life.

“It’s like having big sisters to help me out. I’m constantly reminded about chores that I need to do. Of all the things I remember most now is to keep my home organized and tidy,” Ms. Jenkins says.

The bedroom is her favorite space, with a decor that is bright and breezy — floral bed coverings with matching pillow shams, royal blue wall-to-wall carpeting and large closets, accented by wall hangings and a few of Ms. Jenkins’ posters.

Mrs. Washington spends the majority of time with Ms. Jenkins. Their relationship goes well beyond sisterhood, Ms. Jenkins says. Like a mother, Mrs. Washington doesn’t just harp on what Ms. Jenkins needs to do — whether it’s cleaning up or sticking to a schedule — the two enjoy each other’s company. They spend a lot of time out and about, visiting flea markets and yard sales, strolling through the malls and attending daily church services together. Just having fun.

“She’s really like a mother to me. She’s like a second mother to me. I can talk to her about anything and everything,” Ms. Jenkins says.

Mrs. Washington echoed her charge’s sentiments.

“It’s challenging, but it’s fun. We have a wonderful time together. This is a very good program, and it has helped Dannitta — she’s getting there in terms of being more of a parent,” Mrs. Washington says.

Right now, Ms. Jenkins is focused on getting her education and planning a career. PSI makes that possible, too. Ms. Jenkins attends PSI Day Habilitation Program in Southeast from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the weekdays, and transportation is provided.

Day care isn’t a problem for Ms. Jenkins, either. Her precocious 2-year-old son accompanies her to school, where a day-care center is inside the facility. In the past, Ms. Jenkins says she has held positions that were not fulfilling. With PSI’s help, she can prepare herself for a challenging career.

“[Eventually], I would like to attend a trade school for computer training, and I want to get my driver’s license,” Ms. Jenkins says, smiling.

The agency monitors five additional apartments throughout the District and individual family care homes in Prince George’s County. In the future, Ms. Ali says PSI hopes to expand the program because of its success and the need for people with developmental disabilities to feel independent, live in nice places and maximize their potential.

“We work with this population because I firmly believe that everyone can grow and learn. It’s not just a job, it’s very rewarding. We know that we are helping people grow,” Ms. Ali says.

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