Elected officials, home workers and family members of the new residents were on hand to celebrate the opening of the new facility, at which six women who previously lived at Queens Village’s Bernard Fineson Developmental Center, slated to close by 2017, will now live permanently.
The Jamaica home is one of three new properties opened within the last year in Queens by Family Residences and Essential Enterprises (FREE), a non-profit that provides an array of services and programming for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental illnesses and traumatic brain injury.
The other two homes house a total of 13 residents.
The three openings come as the state works to close facilities like Bernard Fineson and the Brooklyn Developmental Center amidst a push towards less-restrictive community living in place of institutions. States have been increasingly adopting this model over the past two decades.
Grace Samartano, whose niece Annette Cascio is one of the six women living in the home, said at first she was strongly opposed to the idea of moving her niece to the home.
An employee at Bernard Fineson, Samartano said she had seen firsthand for years how well her niece had fared under the tight schedules and constant oversight of the institution. However she said after seeing the house and watching how well her niece adapted to the new environment, she is thankful for the move.
“I was deadest against her coming here,” she said. “But once she was here and I saw the house and the staff, I loved it. We’re so happy. You have to have a special gift to work with this population, and everyone here has it.”
After seeing how her niece had thrived, Samartano said she now favored this means of housing over an institution.
Jean Valenziso, Samartano’s sister, said she had seen tremendous changes in her niece since she had made the move.
“The changes have been utterly unbelievable,” she said. “She’s always been independent, but she’s even more independent now. We heard group home and we [initially] panicked about her not having that constant structure. But all those fears have been overcome.”
Beth Peterson, vice president of Community Living Services and Opportunities for FREE, said even staff had shared those initial fears.
“I think initially it’s a little nerve-racking, because they were accustomed to where they were living,” she said. “But when you get to see the house it really is a home. It’s an opportunity for them to live together and live in the community.”
As part of their new home, the women take part in activities such as arts and crafts and volunteer work, hitting the field with various area non-profits such as Meals on Wheels.
With plush leather couches, colorful walls, framed pictures of the tenants and an array of arts-and-crafts projects dotting the walls, the facility looked much more akin to a sorority home than anything resembling institutional living.
Some of the activities, as it turns out, aren’t so different.
“She actually colored my niece’s hair,” said Valenziso of residence manager Giselle Campione. “We would never have done that at home. They made her a blonde, and she looks fabulous.”