- Associated Press - Sunday, May 7, 2017

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - For the past twelve years Felicia Kern has resided in the Willowood Developmental Center Clinton group home where she has been learning social and life skills.

“(Felicia) has flourished in this environment and is one of the most active people I know,” Denise Astorino-Brown, Willowood’s staff development coordinator and public relations manager said. “Between her job, her volunteer activities and her social life, she is thriving.”

Willowood in Jackson works magic every day, transforming lives as they offer a little encouragement, a little hope, and sometimes, a little push in the right direction.

With a mission of helping developmentally disabled adults “develop the skills needed for optimum independence,” Willowood’s staff works diligently to help their program participants live each day to its fullest - and hopefully, to literally move along in life.

And, thanks to a grant recently awarded to Willowood by the Million Dollar Round Table Foundation, residents in the WDC’s Supported Living Program will find the process of moving into their own apartment or house someday a little easier.

The MDRT Foundation’s gift of $1,000 will be placed in a revolving fund for Willowood’s Transitions Program, to help developmentally disabled adults pay for things like utility deposits, furniture, housewares, and other incidental expenses that ordinarily go along with the moving process.

Jay Brown, Willowood’s Jackson regional director, explained that “If someone is transitioning from an institution to a more independent environment, our program calls this Supported Living. These are people who have jobs and who, like everybody else who’s moving into a house or apartment, need money for all kinds of expenses, and, whatever they need, this money can help them.”

The MDRT Foundation is the charitable arm of the MDRT, an association of financial professionals which awards grants to nonprofit organizations to help build stronger families and communities worldwide.

Willowood Board member Jimmy Lang of Greenville is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Round Table, and was asked this year by the MDRT to consider a recommendation for a grant to a charitable organization. Lang, who has a family member involved in the Willowood program, has a deep connection to the center.

“Being a Board Member at Willowood Developmental Center and knowing the great work they do for the developmentally disabled individuals, they seemed to be a perfect fit for the recommendation,” he said. “For the residents of Willowood, receiving this grant will help provide support for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities with their living needs. I am very pleased with the staff and management at Willowood, and commend highly the job that their director, Curt Alford, has shown in his duties.”

At this time Willowood, which Brown said has been in the community for more than 40 years, serves about 150 people, including approximately 40 who live in community living homes in Clinton, Pearl and Jackson.

Astorino-Brown said one of Willowood’s biggest missions is “to be part of the community. We want our supported living and supported employment assistance to cohese together as the program participants are moving out of these group homes and into their own places, usually for the first time.”

Astorino-Brown said Willowood is a private, not-for-profit center supported largely through the federally-funded Medicaid waiver program. “Right now we’re helping people from 18 to 70-plus years old, and they are not just residents,” she said. “Some attend the center on a day basis, and there is also a community preschool.”

The Supported Living participants hold down jobs through Willowood’s Supported Employment program, working in a variety of roles that include clerical, retail, food service, janitorial and stockroom positions.

“Our philosophy is all about changing attitudes about working around individuals with disabilities,” Astorino-Brown said. “It’s about making sure they have all the opportunities they wish. They have a choice. We’re not telling them what to do - we’re helping them achieve their goals, doing what they like. We want to get rid of the separation of these people from others in the community. We’re really about serving where it is needed.”

At Willowood, focusing on skills that increase independence is key.

Brown said working out a budget is “one of major skills we work with residents on. We sit down and talk about finances and having a bank account,” he said. “We go over how much they can spend on rent and other expenses. We want this to be about them, for them. In all we do, we’re trying to encourage that independence.”

Astorino-Brown added that participants are also provided with a checklist for moving in, and together they discuss basics like how to call 9-1-1.

“We try to instill that these are not children, but adults, and they need to be treated as such,” she said. “Depending on their view of their abilities, we try to meet them where we can.”

Person-centered thinking is essential, Brown said. “We’re trying to see where they are and help them there.”

To reinforce that process, Willowood residents have an Advocacy Council called Voice, which includes program participants who act as a board, learn about laws that affect them and act as mentors for their peers. They are also encouraged to volunteer in their communities.

Still, there are barriers to overcome, Astorina-Brown said. “Being here opens your eyes to the fact that a lot of people have a stigma about the developmentally disabled. We really want to help them see past what they have been told their whole lives. There are levels of independence they can achieve. They have the same wants as anyone else - some they may be able to achieve and some not, just like everyone else. We want to erase any feelings of being a burden. Part of that is teaching life skills - helping them see more than they’ve been told.”

To reach those goals, Brown said, “we try to do it in invisible way. We want them to make friends with people who are not paid to be with them, build their own sense of community, and widen their possibilities, even while they’re having growing pains.”

Curt Alford, Willowood’s executive director, praised the MDRT Foundation’s contribution to further the center’s Transitions Program, and explained how that program works.

“One of our main goals, other than the increased feelings of independence and self-accomplishment that comes with living and working outside of sheltered congregate settings, is for these individuals to develop long-term meaningful relationships with persons in their communities and to develop more natural support systems in their lives,” he said.

“We have been able to develop our Supported Living program due to the Mississippi Department of Mental Health’s Community and Home-Based Waiver Medicaid program. This allows for long-term staff supports to be provided to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities living and working in their home communities. We have been able to move about a dozen people from group home settings to apartments or houses that they rent in Pearl, Clinton and Jackson over the past year. We have also been able to secure several part-time jobs.”

Creating public awareness of acceptance and cooperation is a constant goal, Astorino-Brown said.

“Education is a big component, as is advocacy, education and support,” she said. “When you shape your mission around advocacy, with programs like Voice, that’s helping them develop self-advocacy.”

The rewards of witnessing someone come to this point are easily evident, Brown said.

“When you see somebody go into their own apartment - somebody who has never lived on their own - and they have it decorated the way they want it,” Brown adds. “It’s such a great feeling to see their excitement and happiness.

“To complete a long-time dream, as of May 12, Felicia Kern is moving out of the group home into her own apartment with a roommate. (Felicia) feels that with all that she has learned, she’s ready to take this step, and is excited for this next phase of her life.”


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