West Milford — The four homes lie within typical residential neighborhoods in West Milford, Butler and Oak Ridge. They look like any other home with the family members coming and going; off to shop, out for a meal or heading to church. The difference is that the family members are clients of ALFA (Appropriate Living for the Autistic) Development, Inc. They are all adults and all have developmental disabilities with special needs.
ALFA is a non-profit agency licensed by the State of New Jersey Department of Human Services Division of Developmental Disabilities. For the past 10 years ALFA has run the residential programs, two of them in West Milford, as well as a day program in Newfoundland.
According to Executive Director Debra Santa Lucia, the agency was founded in 1999 and the first group home opened in 2001. ALFA is fully funded by the state and accepts clients 18 years or older. The day program currently has openings but the homes are at full capacity.
“The state has 14,000 clients waiting for a bed and they place just 125-150 clients a year,” Santa Lucia said.
Santa Lucia started with ALFA in 2004 after leaving a job in telecommunications. She very much enjoys her current position and looks forward to going to work each day. She’s become a mother hen to her clients.
It started with a mom
The agency has its roots with a mother. Eileen McMahon, ALFA’s founder, was looking for a safe and respectful residential option for her son, who had autism. She had been running respite programs for parents but saw the need for something more.
The diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder appears to be higher in the state of New Jersey. Nationally the numbers are 1 in 150 children, but in New Jersey the reported numbers are 1 in 94 children. Some believe, however, that these numbers do not reflect a greater number of children who have the condition, but rather the state’s ability to identify the cases. There are currently approximately 87,000 people with some form of autism in the state of New Jersey.
ALFA is a diverse group
ALFA’s clientele is not restricted to those with autism, but rather runs the gamut of developmental disorders and intellectual disabilities. In residence they are cared for by certified staffers, three in the day time and two overnight personnel.
The current residents, ranging in age from 22 to 61 years old, enjoy a home life much like anyone else. Sundays may find them lounging on the couch watching a football game or just hanging around the house. Weekdays are busier, out of bed by 7 a.m., breakfast, and then off to participate in the day programs.
The day program offers recreational, social and community activities. They go to Wal Mart and Shop Rite, visit farmer’s markets, go bowling, dancing and swimming. After dinner it’s games or TV until lights out. It is a full schedule for those who want to be busy but they can opt out of activities if they choose to.
Gratitude to the community
Santa Lucia is very grateful for the open arms and assistance from the community of West Milford.
“There are a lot of friendly faces,” she said.
Stacy at Sheik’s Family Fitness provides dancing for the clients every week, Brian from BSE Mechanical has come to their plumbing aid, Fr. Steve Shadwell and Sr. Janet Brisky of Saint Joseph Church lend their support and West Milford Pharmacy is always helpful, to name a few.
Mainly, Santa Lucia just wants people to know that they are here, a part of the fabric of the township.
And what is the best part of working for ALFA? “My guys,” she said simply.
ALFA gladly accepts donations to help fill the gap between what is allocated by the state and the expenses incurred in trying to keep the activities going in tough economic times.
Source: West Milford Messenger