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Initiative aided by former Pitt star allows independent living for adults with disabilities

Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
 

In a red T-shirt and jeans, Chris McGough, 25, grins and shakes hands with TC House team leaders. These are the people who want to give him a home.

With a T for former West Allegheny and Pitt football star Tyler Palko and a C for his longtime friend, Chris, the planned 4,400-square-foot house in Imperial will give McGough and three like-minded young adults with Down syndrome the freedom to entertain guests in their own home.

“This is a new trend, but it's a great one,” said Nancy Murray, president of the Arc of Greater Pittsburgh, a South Side advocacy group for children and adults with disabilities.

Murray estimated 15,000 people with intellectual disabilities wait a decade or longer to receive state housing assistance, including 1,317 in Allegheny County.

“Families are coming to us now saying, ‘We'll build a house; we'll buy a house; we'll pay rent, whatever.' They want to get away from what is clearly a flawed system,” Murray said.

They blend resources within the home, said Michelle Stockunas, manager of Achieva's “A Home of My Own” initiative, which helps parents organize appropriate housing for their young adult children.

“That can include any state or county funding, sharing the bills, pooling their wages, sharing care giving services, and all of this is planned out from the beginning,” she said.

Palko and McGough founded TC House, the name of the home and its parent nonprofit, in June 2005 with a vision to help people with Down syndrome achieve their full potential.

Palko's annual golf outing, in its eighth year, raised about $225,000 — nearly half of the nonprofit's original goal of $500,000.

“Chris' home, the charity — they belong to all of us,” he said. “I've been a part of a team my whole life, so to watch the project grow into something the whole community is working to get accomplished is something we're all pretty proud of.”

Palko, 30, lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., but said he'll be home when the builders break ground in February.

Without the home, Murray said, McGough might wait more than a decade for state-sponsored support.

“His parents are healthy, there are two of them, they can take care of him and he doesn't have any serious medical or behavioral issues,” she said. “If they waited, Chris could be on the list for 10, 15, 20 years.”

At least 4,300 people with intellectual disabilities statewide are on the list for services, giving them priority status for open rooms in community homes. Generally, people are selected based on the severity of their needs, not their personalities, Murray said.

Achieva has 60 community homes in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties and provides residential support for 182 people, most over age 40. Supports include residential, vocational and in-home care, respite, recreation and leisure, early intervention, family support, advocacy and long-term planning, including special needs trusts.

Young adults shouldn't have to wait, Murray said, addressing McGough's father, Steve.

“He loves you. Of course, he loves you, but he's ready for his own space,” she said.

Families who organize their own housing have much more freedom than those relying on state-sponsored funding, Stockunas said.

“(Parents) could choose a townhouse with one roommate, or something like TC House, where Chris and his family can meet with other families and decide which person is the best fit.”

Hunched over home renderings, senior project manager and TC House board member Mike Cain said the house will feature wide hallways and four smaller-than-average bedrooms to encourage tenants to spend their time in one of several plush community areas.

One bathroom will meet federal accessibility standards for people with disabilities, and there will be a large basement that could be converted to a game room.

“We've got everything ready to go,” Cain said, looking toward the February groundbreaking.

“If we do this right, it will look and feel like a home, not a residential facility,” said Bob Corcoran, financial adviser and secretary of the project's board of directors. “One that's right for a few fairly high-functioning, semi-independent individuals who won't need hour-by-hour supervision.”

The project could become a blueprint for other families, Stockunas said. The TC House board discussed a duplicate home in another neighborhood in a few years, if Palko, McGough and others think they can help.

“You spend all this time keeping your child with you, trying to protect him and do the right thing,” Steve McGough said, smiling at Chris. “Now, the whole community is pitching in. It's exciting, and we're almost there.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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