Villa de Vida Offers Hope, Housing for Disabled

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Photo courtesy Villa de Vida
La Cañada Flintridge residents and Villa de Vida Chairman Dr. Edward “Ted” Merchant, with his family, Betsy, daughter Mollie and son Matt, are shown at a 2015 Villa de Vida fundraiser.

For Pasadena-based nonprofit Villa de Vida and families of those with developmental disorders, hope that springs eternal really can come true.
It began as a question posed by a group of concerned parents from La Cañada Flintridge: What would happen to their children with developmental disabilities when they reach adulthood? What would happen when they, the parents, are no longer able to care for them? The group residences the parents had seen, while few and hard to find, were restrictive, solitary or lonely places that just didn’t fit the happy homes they dreamed of for their children.
Now, over the course of some five years, that discussion has turned into the viable nonprofit organization that has secured exclusive negotiating rights to build a 54-unit residential project for adults with developmental disabilities.
It’s taken a combination of luck, perseverance and an unexplained generosity, say two of the group’s founders, Denise Longo and Dr. Edward “Ted” Merchant, who began the nonprofit over neighborhood coffee talks in La Cañada Flintridge.
“I can still remember the day at one of our meetings that Ted said, ‘Are we going to just wave our hands around, or are we going to do this?’” Longo said. “And I just wanted to leap out of my skin and shout ‘We’re going to do this!’”
Individuals with special developmental needs don’t socialize like others and need structured social activities in a supportive environment, Longo notes. Once public or childhood education ends, sometimes those young adults are left on their own, becoming marginalized, languishing in a solitary world of video games or an online reality. Others, who don’t have a strong family support network, can become homeless or incarcerated. It is estimated that 71.5% of people with developmental disabilities currently receive residential care from family caregivers, of whom some 25% are over age 60, according to the Center for Healthcare Strategies Report.
“We began by asking people ‘Where would you want your child to live under those circumstances?’” said Longo, who is the Villa de Vida board secretary. “We dreamed of a community with built-in friends, where they can visit a common dining area and have community outings together, all with a staff supporting their individual needs.”

Photo courtesy Denise Longo
Villa de Vida board member Denise Longo (fourth, from left) and her family (from left), sons Keegan and Griffin, daughter Carina and husband Blake have long supported the idea of an independent community for adults with developmental disabilities.

The group still seems to barely believe their good fortune, with Merchant, who is chairman of the board, calling the sum of the project “magic.”
In 2015, the city of Poway in northern San Diego County donated a two-acre parcel of buildable land and one-acre of greenspace, worth some $2.7 million, along with another $500,000 to capitalize the project. Villa de Vida is partnering with Mercy Housing California to develop the affordable, permanent supportive rental housing for adults with developmental disabilities. There will be 51 one-bedroom apartments, three two-bedroom apartments and one management unit, where an on-site building manager will live. The development includes a large community space with living, kitchen and dining rooms, multi-purpose rooms, lounges and resident services areas, staff offices, and exercise and laundry rooms. Quiet outdoor courtyards and a plaza that overlook Poway Creek will complete the vision.
Supportive living services will include wellness and health management, personal finance and employment services, nutrition and healthy lifestyles, personal character development and community enrichment, including employment support.
“There’s no turning back now,” Merchant said. “The most significant thing I’ve learned is the incredible level of generosity that people are willing to display given the opportunity.”
The target population will be adults with developmental disabilities, including, but not limited to, autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, Williams syndrome and epilepsy.
The project on the table is a $25 million undertaking — no small change, Merchant solemnly admits. Villa de Vida and Mercy Housing applied in June for federal tax credits funneled through the state, which, if funded, will cover 70% of the total cost. In order to apply, the nonprofit had to show it is capable of securing about 30% of the total. So far, they’ve reached about 20%.
Even if the funding doesn’t come through, (the process is “highly competitive,” they acknowledge), they will try and try again, and continue fundraising meanwhile.
Merchant, now retired from his career in obstetrics and gynecology, and one of the founding partners of HealthCare Partners Medical Group, knows for whom he is fighting.
Merchant’s son, Ken, 37, has been living for the past five years in a model community of Villa de Vida, an adult residential community in San Juan Capistrano called Casa de Amma, where he has thrived and developed professionally and personally. Ken began by volunteering, but within two months of living there he was working as a paid employee at a pet boarding center, where he still works.
Before that, Ken lived in an apartment above his parent’s garage, “where his primary relationships consisted of us and Amazon.com,” said Merchant, who notes that the employment component is a huge part of the success of individuals in these communities.
“The issue of employment is key to attaining personal dignity in terms of your existence,” he said. “We are lending dignity to people’s lives here, which is really a survival strategy. Creating meaningful relationships for them isn’t something I hear people talking about in other places.”
Merchant says he still credits Descanso Gardens for “saving his son’s life,” for a period when the young man was still living at home, by giving him employment and purpose.
Support services for employment for adults with disabilities exist elsewhere, but they don’t have the same proven success rate as Casa de Amma, Longo and Merchant note. At Casa de Amma, 90% of the residents are employed, with 90% of those individuals still employed at the same job two years later. That employment longevity in itself can attest to the benefits within their surrounding community, they add.
Neither Longo nor Merchant is working toward the housing project goal with their own children in mind. Longo, whose 27-year-old son Keegan still lives at home, said she doubts he would qualify for the new projected development.
San Diego County is granting Section 8 vouchers for each of the apartments, making it practically free for residents who qualify.
“My motivation now is to provide 52 individuals with a home they can take pride in and where they can make new friends,” Longo said. “I’ve also learned what it is to have a gracious, loving heart from Ted and [his wife] Betsy. Their son is already happy and settled, yet they’re doing this amazing effort, both financially and emotionally, and they’ll reap no benefits except within their hearts.”
Villa de Vida would love to see their apartment community become a new prototype for others near their own community of La Cañada Flintridge, and around the country.
“Unless we build these prototype communities and give the world an opportunity to experience them, and to see what their validity is, we won’t see additional ones being built,” Merchant said. “I’d like to give parents hope. I want them to know someone is out there doing something. Let’s give [individuals with disabilities] a chance, whether it’s employment or friendship. Let’s open our eyes and really see them.”
Villa de Vida’s new Executive Director Hunter Christian, who has been vital to the upcoming development in Poway, said when she first saw the model community at Casa de Amma, she realized all people should have that option for living.
“It was like finding heaven, actually,” said Christian, who also has a developmentally disabled adult son. “It is a place that brings out the best in their residents, not just a place where they are safe, but where they also thrive and are productive within their community. We’d love for this to be a repeatable project.”
Villa de Vida will find out the fate of its development from the government funding project by September or October, she noted, and meanwhile, they will continue fundraising efforts.
To donate to Villa de Vida, go to its website at villadevida.org, and click the donate tab.

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