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A Peek Inside:
Dinner With The Group Home Next Door

By Angela Montefinise

Each night at around 6 p.m., the eight residents of a home on 162nd Street and 35th Avenue in Flushing gather together and prepare to enjoy a home cooked meal.

They sit around their dinner table, bow their heads and say grace before placing their napkins on their laps and passing around the food. The serving dishes move in an orderly fashion around the circular table, with the words “please” and “thank you” uttered repeatedly.

Each night, residents and workers
at the Flushing AABR group home
pass food around the table and
enjoy a home-cooked meal.
Tribune Photo by Angela Montefinise

The eight young men and women talk about the various things they did during the day and what they plan to do the next day. They tell jokes and talk about their lives. They laugh and comfort each other if their daytime chores were tough.

It’s an ordinary dinner in what seems to be an ordinary two-story white home from the outside.

But on the inside, it’s clear this is no ordinary place.

This house is a group home run by the Association for the Advancement of the Blind and Retarded (AABR), a State-funded agency that runs 19 group homes across the five boroughs, including 10 in Queens.

The eight residents in the Flushing house are mentally-disabled men and women who spend their days learning responsibility, social skills and work skills, and spend their nights relaxing, playing video games, watching television, talking, and exercising.

Consumers learn responsibility by working at the group home, but also learn social skills by playing board games together.
Tribune Photo by Angela Montefinise

They learn to be independent, but are supervised 24 hours a day by at least two AABR workers, and are assisted in most of their activities and chores.

Director of AABR Residential Services Hezikeigh Elliott defined what her agency does for its “consumers” when she said, “We maximize potential for a productive life.”

But it does so much more than that. Assistant Director of Residential Services Ruth Edoho said the house is “like a family,” and said, “There’s so much love here. We make this their home.” Although she said there is a lot of “ignorance” about group homes in the community, she said, “If people really took the time to see how we work, they’d see we do wonderful things for these wonderful people.”

The consumers agree. Just ask Dulcette, one of the consumers. As she proudly looked around the living room, she said, “This is my house. I love this house.”

Mystery of Group Homes

In order for an agency to open a group home in a neighborhood, it has to follow a series of complicated procedures, including finding a location, purchasing or renting it, and applying for a license with the State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.

License applications are “extremely detailed,” Edoho said, and have to be reviewed by local community boards before they are sent to the State office for final approval. Edoho said, “Unfortunately, we often experience difficulties at the Community Board level because people don’t understand group homes. There are misconceptions.”

She said, “People think that the homes will drive down housing values or create too much noise or trouble. Not true at all. We have excellent relationships with all of our neighbors, and we are good neighbors.”

Inside the Home

In the Flushing AABR house, there are eight residents, four men and four women. Each consumer shares a room with another consumer of the same sex, with the guys on one side and the girls on the other. Their rooms are filled with pictures of their families, pictures they drew, and other things they enjoy.

Consumer Damon shows off some personal photos, which he proudly displays all over his room.
Tribune Photo by Angela Montefinise

Dulcette has a television in her room that she got for Christmas last year, and she said, “I love that television. It’s a beauty.” She said, “C’mon baby,” as she tried to turn the set on, eventually accomplishing the task and sitting on her bed, relaxing and watching “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”

Consumers can also relax in the house’s basement, where exercise machines, board games, a television, and video game systems are at their disposal. There’s also the patio and the “quiet room,” where consumers can sit and “get away from it all,” according to House Manager Suzette Miller. She said, “After a long day, they like to unwind just like anybody else.” 

What the consumers have to unwind from is a series of chores that they have to complete each day, from setting the table to taking a shower.

Edoho said, “They take pride in what they do. It motivates them.” During a recent visit, Freddy – one of the consumers – proudly displayed the house’s chores chart, which informs the residents of what they have to do that day.

“I have to set the table,” Freddy said. Then, with minimal help from two employees, he placed knives, forks and napkins around the dinner table. If he placed something in the wrong spot, Edoho would correct him, with Freddy responding, “I know, I know.”

Although the home has a housekeeper who does the cooking and cleaning, the consumers help, and Medicaid Service Coordinator Giselle James said, “They all think they’re the best cook. ‘My food is so delicious,’ they always say. They love what they do to help around here.”

The employees, who are all specially trained by AABR, constantly compliment the consumers, with Edoho saying, “It’s important to show them that you care and you love them. You have to understand, these people love and accept you for exactly what you are, no questions asked. They’re extremely sweet and innocent. You have to learn from that, and accept them in the same way.”

And Outside The Home

But living at a group home isn’t all about chores and games.

According to Edoho, the consumers spend their days outside of the house, doing a variety of things that increase their work skills.

She explained that they sometimes participate in a supported work program, working at sites such as Office Max and Toys ‘R Us. She said, “They go to different places and do different jobs. Sometimes they do maintenance, sometimes they do stocking. They do all kinds of things.”

Other times, the consumers go through a day treatment program, where they learn job training skills at one of three educational facilities, all located in Queens. The Flushing house uses the St. Pascal’s facility in St. Albans, and Edoho said, “We try to teach them how to communicate, how to listen, and teach them basic skills they may need at their jobs.”

How It Works

According to Edoho, when the family of a person diagnosed with mental retardation decides it wants to place the person in a group home, it submits the request to the State Department of Retarded and Developmental Disorders, which refers the family to a group home agency. AABR is just one of them.

Edoho said, “We are often used by the State because we have an excellent reputation and an excellent track record.” She said AABR’s case management department works with the consumers before they are placed into a house, and she said, “We treat these people with the utmost respect and dignity. Many times, with this population, you don’t see that respect.”

While the AABR staff works with the consumers on an everyday basis, each consumer also has a Medicaid service coordinator, who deals with their consumer’s State case and all other government and insurance issues. Edoho said, “Having that makes it a lot easier to deal with the bureaucracy.”

Currently, AABR services consumers of all ages, and has a long waiting list, something Edoho said, “Is forcing us to find more space.” She said, “We’re looking into opening up more sites. Getting the word out about group homes and how beneficial they are is a good way to start.”

What Is AABR?

AABR is a Queens-based non-profit entity that was established in 1956 to help people diagnosed with mental retardation or autism lead productive lives.

It offers educational facilities in Queens, residential facilities across the five boroughs and family services, and always does everything “with the consumer always in mind, first and foremost,” Edoho said. 

For more information on AABR or to make a contribution, go to www.aabr.org.

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