Caregiver program helps those with disabilities lead happy, full lives

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Leslie Ann Milton

Ken Oates

By Sabrina Bates

Editor

As the number of adults with disabilities continues to rise across the state and nation, so does the need for caregivers. The Centers for Disease Control reports in Tennessee in 2021, there were approximately 1,747,053 people with some type of disability. They represent 32 percent of the state’s overall population. That number has grown since 2017, when 15.5 percent of the state’s population was reflective of people with some type of disability.

In an effort to help meet demands to help people with disabilities “live well,” a company with 10 offices across the state, including two in West Tennessee, are pairing family model-home providers with those in need.

D&S Community Services is a division of the Sevita Home and Community Based Health Care family. All areas in West Tennessee can provide a Family Model Residence to support those with disabilities.

Family Model Home Providers, sometimes referred to as Host Home Mentors, are contracted employees of D&S Community Services, and receive a tax-free stipend for their service, in addition to a host of other benefits that come with providing a supportive and stable home environment while integrating the person(s) supported into their lives. The amount received is a daily rate, which varies based on the level of care being provided. Room and board is also paid to the home providers, to help cover the costs involved in supporting an individual in their home. 

Several Mentors have served in that role for decades, opening their homes and sharing their lives with those who have some sort of intellectual or physical disability.

Leslie Ann Milton, affectionately known as “Miss Ann” to youth she supports, has been opening her home in the Volunteer State for 20 years.

“These kids need love and need someone to listen to them,” said Miss Ann. “I never turn a kid down. … I introduce the kids I care for to the neighborhood,” Milton explained. “My neighborhood is my community. I have a village.”

Not only does “Miss Ann” give the children she supports a sense of community, she also gives them a place to call home. Every youth who passes through her door knows he or she can come back one day. And they do – for a second chance, some good advice, or simply to say hello.

“They always come back to Miss Ann,” said Tracey Pierre, Program Director for Sevita. “Kids are calling, checking in. These kids don’t have family. Miss Ann’s home is a safe haven for them.”

And that’s just how she likes it.

“When Miss Ann accepts a child or teen into her home, her commitment and dedication to that

child is steadfast,” said Michael Medeiros, a trainer with Sevita. “She never gives up trying to prepare her children for bright, successful futures. The depth of Miss Ann’s heart is evident to all who meet her.”

“Miss Ann” is also a support system for other Mentor foster parents. She has embraced RELATE skill development, which is the heart of Sevita’s clinical model for therapeutic foster care. Along with handing out business cards to new Mentors so they know where to reach her, she passes along two mottos: “I’m not a quitter, and don’t take it personally.”

Ken Oates is another Host Home Mentor with D&S Community Services. Oates’ life was changed while helping a neighbor fix a tractor while a group from Dream Catchers, the equestrian program for adults with special needs, showed up to learn from him. Oates became a volunteer for the program due to his love of horses and making a difference in the lives of others. He was eventually approved as a respite-care provider and when his neighbor became ill, Oates took on the role of second father figure to Robbie and Thomas, who were being cared for by his neighbor.

The last decade has been a time of family-building in Ken’s three-bedroom home. He has taught Thomas and Robbie how to cook, clean, and keep track of their bills. They write their own checks. They follow their own recipes. They do their own laundry. Every year, the three men assess what skills they want to work on. Grilling is now at the top of the list.

“I treat them as adults and individuals like anyone else would want to be treated,” Oates explained. “I forget they have disabilities. They’ve become independent with so many things.”

The trio camp, fish, ride quads, volunteer in the community and spend time at the bowling alley. Oates helped expand a local bowling league for those with special needs from 8 to 40 within a few years. The three of them are part of a competitive bowling league.

Cyndi Irving, Program Services Coordinator for Sevita and Ken’s nominator, noted the behavioral changes she has witnessed in both individuals over the last decade. Physical and verbal aggression are nearly gone.

“Ken provides a home environment that is safe and fun, where these men can form meaningful bonds and gain independence,” Irving said. “Ken believes open communication is paramount to any family’s success,” she added. “They talk to Ken about anything and everything.”

Oates lets the pair continue their relationships with biological family members.

The individuals served have a varying level of support needs, resulting from a diagnosis of autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy or other intellectual/developmental disability diagnoses. Some individuals may be independent and able to go out on their own or have a job. Others may need more support. Responsibilities for providing care vary based on each individual’s needs and goals. Supporting an individual includes tasks like offering a safe and welcoming place to live with daily supervision, encouragement and care as needed.

Support also includes preparing healthy meals, providing transportation to work and appointments along with other activities to help build skills, spark interests and make friends. D&S strives to ensure Family Model Home Providers are matched with a person whose needs fit their lifestyle and whose needs meet the level of care they’re comfortable providing.

“Every person has the right to live well, and D&S Community Services is currently looking for compassionate and caring people who have room in their hearts and homes for individual(s) with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities achieve the life we all deserve.

“Start your journey to a more gratifying life today and discover what it means to become a Family Model Home Provider by visiting us at https://sevitahealth.com/join-us/become-a-mentor/,” D&S Community Services representatives noted.

Those interested in wanting to open their homes and hearts to those with disabilities may reach out to the following: Brooke James (West TN) 1-731-431-4239, brooke.james@sevitahealth.com; Jerrod Vestal (Middle TN) 1-615-796-6568, jerrod.vestal@sevitahealth.com or Jerry Winters (East TN) 1-423-202-8648, jerry.winters@sevitahealth.com.

There are two office locations in West Tennessee – Jackson, Madison County and Bartlett in Shelby County.

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