Jewish Association for Community Living opens its first new group home since 2001
By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – On Nov. 27 Brian Selinger moved into his new home on Brewster Road in West Hartford.
The 24-year-old, who shares the house with two roommates, has his own bedroom and access to a bright kitchen, dining room and a large den area with a TV, a treadmill and his roommate Charlie’s indoor putting green mat.
Most parents are thrilled to see their adult children living happily in their own homes, but for Brian’s parents Andy and Tammy Selinger, it means so much more.
“This is an answer to our prayers,” Tammy said. “It is a dream come true.”
Brian has Fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition that causes developmental problems like learning disabilities and cognitive impairment and, in Brian’s case, autism.
Brian’s new house is the first new group home opened since 2001 by the Jewish Association for Community Living (JCL), which provides safe, independent housing for developmentally disabled adults.
“We had this opportunity to develop this house for Brian. He was kind of the centerpiece of the house,” said Denis Geary, executive director of JCL. “We started talking to the state in the fall of 2016. It took over a year for this house to go from a conversation to opening.”
On Dec. 17, Rabbi David Small of The Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford and JCL board members gathered with the residents and their families for a special ceremony to install mezuzot at the new group home.
Brian helped his mother hammer in the mezuzah on his bedroom door.
“Tammy burst into tears,” Andy Selinger said. “It was a flood of emotions. I get teary just talking about it.”
The Brewster Road house joins the JCL’s three other group homes in West Hartford — on Arapahoe Road, West Normandy Drive and Brookmoor Road — all housing a total of 18 individuals, 10 of them Jewish.
“We have a very unique mission in that — while we cannot just exclusively serve the Jewish community because we are publicly funded and get public money — we want to be a special resource for the Jewish community. All of our group homes have a least some Jewish residents. It is just consistent with our mission,” Geary said.
Searching for options
The Jewish Association for Community Living got its start in June 1979 when Marlene Scharr of West Hartford convened a meeting of local parents to discuss options for children with developmental disabilities. Scharr’s daughter Elizabeth was born with Down syndrome in 1966. Scharr, like many parents with developmentally disabled children, was worried about what would happen to Elizabeth as both she and her parents aged.
Scharr was serving on the board of Greater Hartford Association of Retarded Citizens (now HARC) and was a member of the organization’s first committee for residential homes, which sought government funding to set up group homes throughout the state.
Long active in the local Jewish community, Scharr and her group, the Committee for the Developmentally Disabled, brought the idea of Jewish group homes to the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford.
Three years later, in 1982, the Jewish Association for Community Living was incorporated.
Funded by private donations and a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford, and guided by real-estate developers Michael Konover and Max Javit, JCL purchased a property on Arapaho Road in West Hartford Center, where it opened its first kosher group home in 1983, followed by two others in the years following.
Since then, JCL has branched out to provide supported living services for individuals with developmental or intellectual disabilities living in their own apartments or condos. JCL provides daily support for these adults, depending on how much assistance they need.
“JCL is important because our clients should be living in all areas of life just as we are able to do without a disability,” said JCL President Meredith Smith. “JCL affords them that opportunity like nothing I have ever seen before.”
JCL has begun doing more fundraising over the past four years and has hired a part-time community relations/development coordinator.
“I told the board we need to do a better job at raising our own dollars,” Geary said.
Most of JCL’s funding comes from the state of Connecticut. But while costs have gone up, no cost-of-living increases have occurred.
“We really needed to ramp up our efforts because we used to fundraise for the icing on the cake,” Geary explained. “Now we fundraise for the batter for the cake itself because costs go up but the state doesn’t necessarily keep up with the funding.”
JCL is a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, and the lion’s share of its annual Federation allocation goes to support JCL’s Judaic programs because, as Geary points out, “We can’t use state dollars to do Jewish programming.”
A “very part-time” Judaic programming coordinator plans year-round activities including Jewish holiday celebrations, like Chanukah parties and Passover Seders, as well as monthly specialized Shabbat services led by Nancy Rosen of Beth El Temple, and learning sessions with local clergy. Residents also participate in the Mandel Jewish Community Center’s Special Needs program.
There are no Christmas trees at the JCL group homes and they are all kosher.
“JCL doesn’t push religion, but it is nice that there are these bonding experiences,” said JCL President Meredith Smith. “The fact that non-Jews clearly want to be part of JCL if they can is really nice. There is this sense of community.”
JCL also receives as great deal of support from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford.
“The Foundation has hooked us up with lots of donors over the years. And some donors have set up designated endowment funds that benefit JCL directly – we get pay outs from those every year and that is really what we would like to develop. And the AIM Chai campaign was very beneficial in raising funds,” Geary said.
Not a fixer upper
“We didn’t do too much to this house. When I walked into it in the spring I said, ‘This is the house we are going to buy,’” Geary said as he gave a tour of home. “It was really in impeccable condition.”
They did have to do a few modifications, like taking out some carpeting and installing new laminate floors and some painting. The kitchen got new floors, accessible counters and a new sink, stovetop and dishwasher, and the wooden cabinets received a fresh coat of pain. Outside new fencing was installed.
The family that had lived in the home previously had already made some accessibility improvements to the home including a ramp from the kitchen down to the living area, but JCL had to extend the ramp to bring it to code. The previous residents also had added a large accessible bathroom that needed no improvements or modifications.
A small den area with built-ins made for a perfect office space for the group home’s supervisor Vanessa Roman and the dedicated staff members who provide support to the residents 24 hours a day.
The basement features a spacious finished area, some storage and a workshop area that might be used by Brian’s housemate Charlie, who makes dog biscuits through his occupational day program.
“We have used them for a couple of our other homes,” Geary explained. “They can come in, buy the house, hire an architect and a contractor. We work together and decide what we want to do to this house so that it works for us,” Geary said.
JCL is now leasing the home from CIL with the goal that JCL eventually take over the mortgage. But for all intents and purposes, Geary says, the home is JCL’s.
It took so many years for JCL to open this latest group home because of the State of Connecticut’s tight annual budgets.
“The state doesn’t develop group homes at the same rate they once did,” explained Geary. “During the ‘80s, ‘90s, and even into the 2000s the development of smaller community-based group homes like this were taking place at a very high rate. For example, our home on Arapahoe, which opened in 1983, was one of the first 50 group homes in Connecticut. I believe there are 850 now and most of that took place in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early part of the 2000s. In recent years, the state has been struggling financially… so at the state level there just wasn’t a lot of development going on.”
It was when the Selingers were looking for a new home for Brian in 2016 that the idea for a new JCL group home was born. With Andy serving as a life director on the board of JCL, the Selingers already knew about the organization’s commitment to dignity and respect for its residents.
When Brian’s previous group home turned out not to be a good environment for him, the Selingers – like the parents of many developmentally disabled adults – knew they didn’t have a lot of alternatives.
They went to Geary and JCL President Meredith Smith and discussed whether there was the possibility of opening a new JCL group home. Andy Selinger said that Geary was “positive but cautious” as to whether they could open a new group home and operate it effectively.
They took their concerns for Brian to the Department of Children and Families (DCF), and the Department of Developmental Services (DDS), mentioning to them that their hope was that Brian be able to find a home like those operated by JCL – “One of the best agencies in the system.”
Along the way, the Selingers gained moral support from Rabbi Small, Janice Rothstein of Jewish Family Services and their State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, who wrote a “powerful” letter to DCF and DDS when it seemed the state might not approve any new group homes.
Ultimately, the group home was approved and finally opened in November.
“It was a long process,” Geary said. “We had to be sure that it could be funded in a way so that we could provide the quality services that I like to think we are known for. We didn’t want to bite off more than we could chew. We were able to negotiate and work with the state. All three of the residents are coming from three other residential settings – not from home — that weren’t working out for various reasons for them or their families. So DDS was fairly motivated to find alternative homes for these three folks.”
“The Selingers really wanted JCL, so that didn’t hurt,” he added.
Brian is doing very well in his new home, which is “six-tenths of a mile” away from his parents.
“Looking to the future, it is great that he is close by, so we will always be able to see him,” Andy said. “One of the biggest things for me is that it is that this gives me peace of mind.”
“It has started off great,” Tammy agreed. “JCL has a desire to get to know him, to make things go well for him. We can’t ask for more than that.”