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updated: 1/9/2013 7:08 PM

Little City group home a flurry of activity

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It's 4 p.m. on a weekday, and the Little City staff at a group home in Palatine is bracing for the storm of activity about to arrive.

A screeching beep rings throughout the single-family house -- just one of the many safeguards in place -- signaling that a door has opened.

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In walks one excited resident after the next, some holding art projects, others carrying shopping bags and all prepared to share tales from their busy day. They laugh and tease and bicker and hug and eventually settle around the community table for the daily huddle that precedes dinner.

Helping to lead the organized chaos is Residential Assistant Belinda Mason, who first teaches the group "grandmother" in sign language. Longtime resident Michael Green gets a round of applause to acknowledge his birthday. Then everyone recites their current goal: remembering to shave, holding open the door for others and taking a shower are among several mentioned.

For this unorthodox family of eight adult men, all with varying degrees of developmental and intellectual disabilities, it's a typical day at the place they call home.

"We don't want to do everything for them," Director of Residential Operations Regina Brown-White says. "We want to enhance them to be better individuals."

Little City operates 15 of these community integrated living arrangements housing more than 100 adults. The nonprofit organization also runs facilities for about 60 adults who can live more independently, as well as five homes on its Palatine campus serving 54 children.

Workers and residents alike proudly show off the many improvements made last year to the Palatine Road group home when a crew of Home Depot volunteers came to paint, refurbish the back deck and expand an eating space. The bedrooms, which mostly sleep two, are decorated with Chicago sports memorabilia, golf artifacts and artwork.

Outside the home, community integration is key. The residents go on weekend outings, play sports and have a choice of activities and the right to worship.

Some hold jobs including Howard Bynum, whose sister moved him from Chicago's West Garfield Park neighborhood for safety reasons. He worked over the summer at Twin Orchard Country Club in Long Grove setting tables and serving drinks.

"You see a lot of exotic sports cars in the parking lot," said Bynum, whose face often breaks into a wide smile. "And I love their food. Their pancakes aren't out of the freezer."

The staff tries to strike a balance between empowering the residents to live autonomously while also keeping a watchful eye. The fleet-footed Bynum, who won the state's Special Olympics gold medal for the 100 meter run, caused a brief scare one day when he took off for a visit to his girlfriend without informing anyone.

"Anytime a person is out of sight, we're worried parents," said Little City Executive Director Shawn Jeffers. "Though Howard is very independent and capable of navigating, my objective is to get (the home) into the best circumstance that assures something (bad) can't happen."

To prevent a future scare, residents now need to carry a cellphone if they go for a walk and sign in and out within a designated time frame. Alarms sound whenever a door opens and overnight workers do bedroom checks every 30 minutes.

Despite the measures, tragedy did strike one night in December 2005. A resident who left the home unescorted and unannounced was fatally struck by a motorist on a residential street.

The Illinois Department of Human Services found no wrongdoing on Little City's part and that reasonable safeguards were in place. Jeffers said the direct care staff was traumatized trying to grieve while also dealing with the extensive investigation. They also questioned whether they should have been more restrictive.

"It just stunned us all," Jeffers said. "You want the most freedoms, but there's also an expectation of zero error. The CILA program faces this challenge on a daily basis -- how to allow people the greatest and highest level of independence while limiting the amount of restrictions placed on them."

Providing care is expensive.

Taxpayers spend a little more than $50,000 annually on each of Little City's CILA group home residents, or about one-third of the cost of someone living in a state-run institution, according to Little City's financial report. The organization then raises an additional $10,000 per person each year to meet higher quality-of-life standards.

In the 2011 fiscal year, 81.9 percent of Little City's $22.4 million operating budget came from government funding, 12.3 percent from contributions and 5.8 percent from investments and other sources.

"Sometimes there are board members who want us to treat it more like a business, but there's no sales goal," Jeffers said. "The only measure of success is happy people."

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