By David Luces
Nearly 100 residents filled the Eugene A. Senior Citizen Center in Smithtown Feb.14 to discuss a proposed St. James group home on Twixt Hills Road. Previously, St. James residents raised concerns over the home, but the latest meeting saw a shift in the majority of residents speaking in favor of the proposed plans.
The St. James residence would be operated by Life’s WORC, a Garden City-based private nonprofit organization, to provide housing for six adults with developmental disabilities and autism. The organization currently runs a total of 41 group homes and rehabilitation programs in Nassau, Suffolk and Queens.
“If these were people of a different religion or race, we wouldn’t be having this hearing,” Joseph Winters, of St. James said. “It should be no different for people with disabilities.”
“If these were people of a different religion or race, we wouldn’t be having this hearing.”
— Joseph Winters
Winters said his son Sean would be one of the individuals who would reside at the proposed group home. He said it was upsetting that his family had to attend a hearing so his son can continue to live in the town where he grew up.
Mary Rafferty, chief operating officer at Life’s WORC, said over the past couple weeks she has spoken to about 36 neighbors who have reached out to the agency with questions and concerns, and who have voiced support for the group home. She said the nonprofit organization was formed by parents raising children with developmental disorders concerned for these individuals’ future.
Rafferty acknowledged that many of the concerns St. James residents shared with her had to do with how the home would affect the block. She said the agency purchased the home with the understanding that it would need renovations and updates. The organization plans on doing exterior work on the home, including fencing the yard to match the neighboring property owner and a circular driveway to ease traffic and parking issues.
“I’m asking you to give us a chance to show how it can work when it’s done right,” she said.
Mary Lu Heinz, of Nesconset, said she similarly related to Winters as a parent of a 21-year-old son with autism. As she and her husband near retirement age they are facing tough decisions she said, while displaying her son’s high school graduation photograph.
“We are contemplating our son’s life when we are gone,” Heinz said. “Where will he go?”
She said a home, like the proposed residence, provides living opportunities for her son and others like him.
The sole opposition of the group home at the Feb. 14 meeting came in the form of an email from the Damin Park Civic Association stating that the home could permanently alter the nature and character of the neighborhood, as well as significantly increase motor vehicle traffic. The association also said its concerns are in no way a reflection on those individuals with either a physical or a mental disabilities.
Life’s WORC purchased the home Jan. 9 for $575,000, according to the Multiple Listing Service of Long Island’s website. The four-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom home boasts 2,857 square feet of living space and will have a residential manager and on-site staffing 24/7.
“[quote_left]“I’m asking you to give us a chance to show how it can work when it’s done right.”
— Mary Rafferty
Denise Walsh, an employee at Life’s WORC who oversees all staff training, said the agency’s philosophy for each person they support is “living with dignity and growing with pride.”
“Due to the Padavan Law, people with disabilities still have to advocate for inclusive —but you and I have free will on where we would like to live — without any opposition,” Walsh said. “Each of these young men are people first, and their disability comes second.”
Smithtown officials have 40 days to respond to Life’s WORC, or until Feb. 24, to raise any objections to the planned Twixt Hills group home, under New York State law. The main objection the town could argue is citing a saturation of group homes in the area, according to town spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo.
Will Flower, who has known the Winters family for many years, asked for people who oppose the home to open their hearts.
“In the end there are only three truths,” Flower said. “Fact is, is that every town has residents with special needs and the best communities are those that welcome and have homes for them. The second is that this home is needed now and third is that this project shows that the St. James community is a community that cares.”