home away from home: Matt Herbstritt pats his father, Terry, outside his group home on Harvey Street in Oak Park. Terry Herbstritt is the development director for Parents Allied with Children and Teachers for Tomorrow, which recently opened the home for adults with autism. (DAVID PIERINI/Staff Photographer)

Group homes have been woven into the community fabric of Oak Park since 1986, but the process has not always been seamless.

UCP Seguin, a Cicero-based organization devoted to “integrating, enriching and empowering” people with disabilities, opened its first Oak Park group home in 1986 in the face of neighborhood opposition and a narrowly successful village zoning board vote.

A group home is a residential unit that houses a small group of people in need of increased personal care, often people with disabilities or people recovering from drug addictions.

When UCP Seguin first opened its group home on East Avenue, the organization encountered community claims that the unique nature of the home required a zoning hearing because the home would not operate like others in the area. Other neighbors expressed concern that property values would fall because of the new home.

Bobbie Raymond, the founder of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, lived near the first 1986 home and remembers neighbors coming to her with their concerns.

According to Raymond, her neighbors were concerned the home would not receive proper upkeep and bring down the neighborhood as a result. She said she did not feel it appropriate to take a side at the time given her relationship to the Housing Center, but she said she still acted as the “sounding block” for her neighbors given her association with community housing.

“I know that at one point a lot of promises were made by certain individuals connected to Seguin and I know the neighbors were extremely upset the promises were not kept,” Raymond said.

Since 1986, UCP Seguin has expanded its group homes to include six in Oak Park and 58 other homes scattered throughout 21 nearby communities. Most of the homes now open with little or no community opposition. Each home is devoted to caring for people with special needs and often range in occupancy from two to five individuals with the average occupant being in his early forties.

The homes are mostly funded through federal entitlement dollars and are run to incorporate the diverse needs of the specific individuals living in them according to John Voit, the president and CEO of UCP Seguin. Individuals living in the homes receive job coaching and life skill training on a regular basis, Voit said, giving them a sense of independence and basic functionality.

Voit compared the care provided inside the homes, which he said resemble a “family arrangement,” to what a loved one might experience as he or she gets older and requires increased medical care.

“The emphasis we want to make is we design what the individual needs and provide that support system to the individuals,” Voit said.

UCP Seguin is not the only organization that has added group homes to the area since 1986. PACTT or Parents Allied with Children and Teachers for Tomorrow, an organization devoted to assisting autistic individuals that has its roots in a day school created as an offshoot from a Loyola University program in 1993, opened its first Oak Park group home for children in 1999 on the 700 block of north Belleforte.

PACTT, like UCP Seguin, also has its roots in helping to create an environment for its participants that fosters individualism, productive living and community involvement, according to Terry Herbstritt, the director of development and communication, whose son lives in one of the group homes.

“PACTT equips kids with communication methods and tools that allow them to express themselves,” Herbstritt said. “Typically a lot of people with autism are very smart, they are just not able to express themselves.”

Individuals that reside in PACTT’s group homes regularly receive vocational training and many hold jobs in the community performing simple tasks such as setting up for a restaurant’s lunch service or working in a nursing home.

Herbstritt and Voit both said they have not met community opposition in Oak Park when planning to open new group homes.

PACTT recently opened its new James and Mary Kay McAllister adult home on south Harvey that is equipped to house eight adults with autism and is named after the family who donated money to make the home possible. Herbstritt said private donations from the community are always appreciated and usually necessary to provide a home’s services, which cost between $500,000 and $600,000 a year.

Neighbors who attended the open house for the new home expressed a desire to get to know the new residents at block parties, Herbstritt said.

“Oak Park has been very welcoming both on a village level and in the community as a whole,” Herbstritt said. “Certainly people are concerned about their property values … but when people get to know our participants they are usually very welcoming and very helpful.”

Group homes are becoming increasingly popular forms of care Voit said, as opposed to large state-run institutions, because of a combination of closing institutions and aging baby boomers who can no longer provide care for their children. A UCP Seguin home usually operates at half the cost of what an institution would require for the same number of people.

Herbstritt said group home popularity stems from leaving the “warehousing” of large institutions and substituting a more personal and community centered experience where residents can go home on weekends or take nights off to eat with their families.

“The quality of life and the dignity provided by a community residential model is night and day when compared to an institutional life,” Herbstritt said.

The organizations said they are navigating state funding cuts and the rise in numbers to continue expanding the group home concept.

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