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For 3 severely retarded men, move goes well to group home

Thursday, April 13, 2000

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

While the parents of some Western Center residents wept and protested the virtual evacuation of the facility yesterday, three profoundly mentally retarded men moved calmly from the institution in Canonsburg to a white stucco home in Robinson.

The three, whose ages range from 38 to 46, had lived most of their lives in the massive institution that can be seen from Interstate 79. Staff from Allegheny Valley Schools, an agency that provides group homes for mentally retarded people, picked them up there in a van yesterday morning and drove them to Robinson.

The parents of at least one of the men protested, according to Allegheny Valley officials, but otherwise all went smoothly. Allegheny Valley staff members had visited the men at Western Center over the past seven weeks to prepare for the move.

The men arrived at a house on the corner of Aiken and Country View roads that none of their relatives had ever visited, despite repeated invitations from Allegheny Valley, according to officials. One set of parents did check out the house yesterday evening. Allegheny Valley Executive Director Regis G. Champ said he was sorry the other parents had refused to examine his agency's accommodations.

The place in Robinson is a one-story, tile-roofed home on a corner lot overlooking a pond with geese and cattails. The house has a back porch where its new residents can sit and watch the pond.

None of the three, who will be joined later by a fourth man who is now recovering in a hospital from surgery, seemed upset yesterday after eating a first meal and receiving a first round of medications in their new surroundings.

But their abilities to express themselves are extremely limited. Each is profoundly mentally retarded. None can talk, walk or feed himself. All travel in wheelchairs. One must receive nutrition through a feeding tube. Another needs a heated waterbed to prevent hypothermia and bedsores.

Two have their own, private rooms. And two share a larger room, which has a cathedral ceiling. Each bedroom has a walk-in closet and chest of drawers. And all are homey, with decorative bed coverings, pictures on the walls and baskets of flowers on the bed tables.

Allegheny Valley, which operates 82 group homes across Pennsylvania, bought the house last year and converted it to accommodate four mentally retarded people in wheelchairs. The agency, one of three selected by the state last year to care for the remaining residents of Western Center, widened doorways, added exits, installed fire alarms and sprinklers. They created a bathroom with a roll-in shower and a $10,000 bathtub with a built-in platform that enables staff members to easily transfer residents from wheelchairs into the therapeutic whirlpool.

From the outside, the house looks like any other in the suburban subdivision. Neighbors have not protested the group home. In fact, when house manager Kim Albert, her husband and two children moved in last fall, neighbors welcomed them with cookies.

Albert and her family live in an apartment created in the basement, which means she will be available 24 hours a day. In addition, two staff members are on duty at night and three others during daylight hours. Albert's children made "welcome" signs for their new house mates and Albert believes they will have fun playing with each other.

Unlike the life at Western Center, the four Robinson residents will not remain in their house all day. On weekdays, they'll leave at about 8:15 a.m. to attend therapy and classes at the Edward Zapp Center in Robinson. They'll return at about 2:30 p.m.

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