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Improving by leaps and bounds


When the state legislature closed a once-bustling, 120-year-old home for developmentally disabled residents of the South Bay, the parents and siblings of the clients served there felt an immediate sense of panic.

At the time the closure of Agnews Developmental Center was announced in 2003, the residents' devoted family members had no idea their loved ones would end up in more neighborhood-friendly, community-oriented homes like the Taylor House in north Morgan Hill, which were developed specifically to provide the constant medical and behavioral needs of those who were displaced from Agnews.

Now, the clients' parents are ecstatic about the improvements their adult children have made in the nearly three years they have lived in the Taylor House.

"All of us parents who were so scared of the closure of Agnews are confident with the health and well-being of our loved ones," said Joanie Pepper, mother of Taylor House resident Bruce Rosenfeld. "Every client is doing things we never knew they were capable of."

Pepper beams with pride when describing the progress Rosenfeld, 52, has made since he moved into the Taylor House in 2007. Gaining the ability to move his wheelchair without assistance, remember people and events from his past and even speak in increasingly longer sentences - though routine for healthy people - are some of the leaps that Rosenfeld has made since the Taylor House opened.

"It's exciting, not just for me, but his life is so much better," Pepper said.

One morning last month, Rosenfeld was practicing his newfound ability to operate an electric paper shredder. A few minutes later, he was coloring with crayons at a table surrounded by the home's four other clients who were putting together puzzles and playing games with the home's staff.

The home's living room was decorated for the holidays, with colorful ornaments and posters made by the clients. A calendar on one of the walls lists the busy schedule of activities and outings coming up, including trips to Christmas in the Park in San Jose and one of the home's favorite regular activities - bowling.

"You can sit down if you want to," Rosenfeld told a visitor as he motioned to an empty chair next to him, his wide, smiling eyes indicating deep thought as they fixated on one spot in front of him, then darted to another as he considered his answers to questions asked by his mother.

He has recently spoken references to his brothers, for whom he made a Christmas card, and asked his mother about relatives who have been deceased for several years.

Pepper said her son couldn't talk, let alone make statements that show he is processing his immediate environment, for the last few years he lived at Agnews. He couldn't use his hands either, but now he is able to feed himself.

The Taylor House is one of two such homes for developmentally disabled people in Morgan Hill - known as "962 homes" in reference to the senate bill that created them. The other is on La Alameda Drive in southwest Morgan Hill. The homes are run by private nonprofit provider Elwyn NC, which is funded almost entirely by state money through the San Andreas Regional Center, according to Elwyn NC consultant Brian Boxall. Clients and their families are not responsible for any costs associated with their care.

There are a total of 23 such homes in California, all of which are in the Bay Area and are operated by a number of different providers.

The "medically fragile" residents of the Morgan Hill homes - which look like standard single-family residences from the outside - were born with mental and physical disabilities that prohibit them from walking, talking and performing basic motor skills. They require assistance from licensed, around-the-clock staff to complete daily tasks such as bathing, eating and going to the bathroom. All the clients were formerly served at Agnews, and some of their families have known each other for decades.

Rosenfeld was born with brain damage and has suffered seizures all his life, Pepper explained. He lived at Agnews for about 30 years. He could walk and talk "pretty well" until about 15 years ago, when his health took a dramatic turn for the worse following a severe seizure that left him with stroke-like damage, including the inability to walk or talk, Pepper said. He "gradually" regained some of these abilities while he remained at Agnews, but it wasn't until he moved into the Taylor Home that he made such marked improvements.

Pepper attributes Rosenfeld's and other clients' improvements to the professional and dedicated staff, the vigorous efforts to expose them to the community and Elwyn NC's strong focus on individual attention. She added that when he moved to Morgan Hill, Rosenfeld was treated by a different, local neurologist, who quickly recognized that he was "overdrugged" and made changes in his medication regiment that induced immediate progress.

The homes were created by Senate Bill 962 in 2005, as a direct response to Agnews' closure. Elwyn NC stepped in as the provider, and the model of treatment and service established by the legislation is vastly different from that of Agnews, emphasizing the clients' involvement in the community they live in, a more tight-knit residential setting and closer one-on-one attention by staff.

"I believe the homes are much more individualized than (Agnews) developmental center, where there were many more staff who had a more narrow scope in terms of the type of work that they did with the clientele," said Elwyn NC executive director Michael Kottke. "Our homes have a fewer number of staff, and (as a result) more family-like relationships develop."

San Jose-based Elwyn NC, which runs two more special needs homes in Morgan Hill that serve clients with special needs who don't qualify for SB962 placement, allows each resident to have his or her own bedroom. The homes are equipped to allow the clients, with staff assistance, to move easily from one room to another. Each room contains a hydraulic lift system hanging from the walls that allows staff to move the residents from their wheelchairs to their beds.

The clients play regular games of Bingo and karaoke, and throw parties at the four Elwyn NC homes that include dancing and singing, explained Ramon Evangelista, the home's activity coordinator. Every day they exercise, working on their walking and motor skills. They venture out of the house at least once a week, and past trips have brought them to the San Francisco Zoo, Happy Hollow and Casa de Fruta.

Betty Lewis, mother of Taylor House client Richelle Lewis, 56, said she and other parents were "petrified" by the closure of Agnews, but now she is certain her daughter's quality of life has improved, proven in part by her growing independence and tendency to wander around the home by herself in her wheelchair.

"I think she's much more relaxed, it's a smaller setting, there are not so many distractions around, and there's more individual attention," Lewis said. "I think (the staff is) a loving bunch of people, and she responds to that."

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