"Darla loves to get out," says her caregiver. The two of them will attend any public event or take the bus downtown and walk up and down Main Street, just to enjoy seeing new things and being outdoors, the caregiver explained.
Darla lives with her roommates Julie and Cindy in a warm, inviting home in Pleasanton that is conveniently located near a bus line. They all have the help of caregivers, who take turns staying overnight.
There was a time when such disabled adults had to move to other communities to find homes. Then, two decades ago, parents banded together to form a nonprofit organization to purchase properties in the Tri-Valley that could be homes for their disabled children when they reached adulthood.
"There was no housing available in the Bay Area," recalled Norm Guest, a founding member of the organization whose grown daughter Darlene has cerebral palsy. "We found a group home in Sonoma."
That home closed after Darlene finished high school at age 22, and she moved to a place in Stockton. When that didn't work out she moved back in with her folks in Pleasanton.
"Then I got into this group of parents," Guest remembered. "They said, 'We're going to start an organization that's going to provide housing,' and I said, 'That's for me.'"
The parents selected the name Housing Options Utilizing Supportive Environments (HOUSE), and the nonprofit House Inc. was incorporated in May 1991 to provide homes, with support services supplied by other agencies.
"We wanted homes in the same community where our children were born and raised," Guest said.
The founders raised the $150 for the business license by selling hotdogs at a cat show. Then the Garnet Austin Chapter of ARC (Association for Retarded Citizens) in Livermore donated $170,000 to House Inc. to purchase property. The new group also received $75,000 from the city of Pleasanton and $20,000 from Livermore and bought duplexes in each of those cities.
"Most of the homes started out with children of people on the board," Guest said. "Darlene went into the Livermore unit."
But first the houses were renovated, using funds from the county and state.
"We had to bust out walls and make it more handicapped accessible," Guest said.
Now, 20 years later, Reach owns nine homes -- six in Pleasanton and three in Livermore -- and founders Guest, Sue Johnson and Lloyd Hanson are still on the board.
The residents all receive federally funded Supplemental Security Income and are registered clients of the Regional Center of the East Bay. Their rent ranges from $375-$525 per month for a private bedroom and shared living space, which includes garbage, water and yard maintenance. Since Reach tenants can't drive, it is important that their homes are near bus lines.
The organization's name was changed to Reach (Resources Education Activities Community and Housing For Special Adults of the Tri-Valley) because it now does more than provide housing. It's allied with others for Special Olympics Northern California and partners with Recreational Activities for the Developmentally Disabled (RADD) for an annual golf tournament. Reach also hosts a prom in the spring at the Pleasanton Hilton with help from Pleasanton Rotary North and Keystone Adult Learning Center.
"The event allows these folks to participate in a spring event complete with a photo opportunity, food and dancing. Some rent a limo to have the full prom experience," said board member Julie Testa.
She became aware of the group while serving 11 years on the Pleasanton Human Services Commission.
"All of my years on the commission, this organization was my favorite because it is so connected to the community," Testa said. "There is no paid staff. I've always been in awe of this organization. They created something out of nothing."
She calls Reach the best-kept secret in town as Community Development Block Grants and Home Funds from Pleasanton and Livermore are used to buy properties, renovate them, and maintain them. Fremont Bank has been instrumental with the property acquisition.
"Every dollar granted or donated stays in our community and directly serves our special needs population and their families," Testa explained. "You won't find a more grassroots organization."
"In providing housing for special needs tenants we provide families with freedom to allow their young adults with disabilities to live away from family in a safe environment," she added. "This provides peace of mind not only for the parents but for the entire extended family."
Reach board members manage two properties each so they are on call to handle problems such as broken appliances.
"It puts us very hands-on with our population," Testa said. "They call me when the dishwasher doesn't work, or the bathtub has standing water." She assesses the situation to see if she can solve the problem or whether a plumber must be called.
A couple of times a year, Pleasanton Rotary North sends teams out to do upkeep on the properties.
"We want to make sure the houses look nice. We want the neighbors to like their appearance," said Guest.
"After we acquire a property we invite the neighbors to an open house," Testa said. "Our tenants are really good neighbors. We have a good neighbor policy. We want homes to fit into the neighborhood."
Reach is starting a new component called Reach Out, hoping community members will add their names to a list to share their skills as plumbers, electricians and more.
On a recent visit to the Reach home of two young men, Anthony and Ferris, Testa noted that their washer and dryer were her old ones. But she and other board members are running out of furniture and appliances to give to the homes, she said with a laugh.
"They often come with very few belongings," Testa said. "Most have bedroom sets, and we can scrounge up glasses and silverware."
"I realized we were missing a great opportunity -- clearly this community would be thrilled to give a chair and have an excuse to go out and get a new one," she said, which led to the start of Reach Out. "We do not need a lot of money because we operate so very efficiently but we could not do so without the support of our community and we want to build on that."
The website, www.trivalleyreach.com, will soon have categories of goods and services that people can contribute.
"The most difficult part is to create a household," Testa noted, finding the right mixture of tenants and caregivers for a home. "We have very high functioning and very low functioning."
"Some have 'supported living,' with someone there all the time," explained Guest. "Others have 'independent living.'" These residents have part-time support for chores such as paying bills and grocery shopping.
Board member Gina Gourley, who is the WorkAbility Coordinator for the Pleasanton Unified School District, heads up the committee for placing tenants in homes.
"When we have vacancies, I have a waiting list and I contact agencies and they contact me with potential tenants," she said.
She arranges a meeting with prospective tenants, caregivers and families to explain how things are shared, what support they receive, and basic house rules. They encourage residents to be in a day program, work or volunteer. Tenants are chosen for compatibility.
"I love the organization," said Gourley. "It's an opportunity for young adults to be able to step out of the family home. They develop self-esteem to live as independently as possible. There's a feeling of 'Wow! I can do this.'"
"It's a great opportunity for parents to have a more normal life as they grow older. There are days you want to throw in the towel," added Gourley, who adopted a son Kevin with cerebral palsy when he was 18 months old. Kevin died three years ago at the age of 29.
"He was a joyful young man -- even at his funeral there were 700 people," she said. "We'd put him on the waiting list for Reach when he was 18-20 years old but because he was in a wheelchair there was no place for him. But my husband and I stayed connected with Reach and stayed involved."
Placing an adult child into their own home allows parents to have an adult relationship with the child, she noted, plus gives the child independence for when the parents die.
"This housing also removes siblings from feeling required to care for their special-needs sibling," Testa pointed out. "It allows them to have a more typical adult relationship with their sibling with disabilities. They can be a friend rather than a caregiver."
The Reach Networking Group, a small group of Tri-Valley agencies invested in adults with special needs, held a Tri-Valley Transition Fair at the Pleasanton Senior Center in October. More than 50 families attended, said Testa.
"Also, out of a need that was voiced by this group, next week the Pleasanton Chamber of Commerce will be sponsoring an event to inform local employers about the benefits of hiring folks with disabilities," she said.
"We want the community to know how grateful we are for the support of the cities of Pleasanton and Livermore," she added.
To receive an invitation to a spring Open House, register on the Reach website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the late afternoon, Darla, Julie and Cindy amble into the kitchen to prepare their meals, along with their caregivers. Everything runs smoothly with smiles and laughter as they focus on chores such as cutting beans and microwaving premade meals. When you see special Pleasanton residents out enjoying themselves around town, know that at the end of their adventures they return to welcoming homes.
Visit www.trivalleyreach.com to sign up to donate goods you no longer need or to offer services as needed.
Microwave, toaster, coffeemaker, towels, blankets
On call handyman
Appliance trouble shooting/repair
Seasonal yard work