In the Service of Dignity

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2/27/2012

 

For almost 50 years, Knights in New Jersey have assisted adults with developmental disabilities

by Chris Donahue

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John shows Bill Rudloff his room at the Alexander House, a group home run by the New Jersey Department for Persons with Disabilities, a Catholic Charities agency. (Photos by Rich Green)

In an activity room at the Gruenert Center, an adult training facility operated by the New Jersey Department for Persons with Disabilities, Peter Solensky sits at a table placing toothbrushes into slots in a plastic cup. The practice helps Solensky, a middle-aged man with an intellectual disability, prepare for paid jobs such as mailing newsletters or shredding paper for local businesses and organizations.

A Catholic Charities agency in the Diocese of Paterson, the Department for Persons with Disabilities has people with developmental disabilities for five decades

Solensky lives at the Finnegan House in Oak Ridge, one of nine group homes operated by DPD. He is largely independent, but needs help with things such as cooking and taking medication. As Solensky concentrates on his task, Bill Rudloff, a member of Marquette Council 588 in Sparta, walks over to him. Looking up and seeing his friend, Solensky breaks into a smile and shakes Rudloff’s hand.

“It took me well over a year before he had the confidence to give me his hand,” said Rudloff. “So every time I come in, I make sure I give him a high-five or handshake and look for the smile.”

A Catholic Charities agency in the Diocese of Paterson, the Department for Persons with Disabilities has served clients like Solensky for five decades. The agency cares for 74 men and women in group homes and supervised apartments, and 51 others at the Gruenert Center. Rudloff is one of many Knights who either work at the site or volunteer as coordinators, teachers and mentors.

In addition to 12 years of service on the board of trustees, Rudloff has also volunteered on several planning and activity committees and at the Wallace House in Sparta. Rudloff has taken clients fishing, to baseball games and, using his skills as a ski instructor, on ski trips. He even recruited two local teachers to help clients build model rockets with the permission of the local fire department.

“The staff here is phenomenal, and our clients are just so friendly and outgoing,” said Rudloff. “Over the years, we have built relationships with quite a few of them. When Wallace House was dedicated, our council would cook dinner for the residents. Two of them joined our council because we wanted them to be members of a team and part of the community.”

A VISIBLE PRESENCE

The Knights’ support of DPD began in 1965 when Father Jack Wehrlen founded the agency in Clifton, explained Chris Brancato, the agency’s director of development and public relations. One of the first people Father Wehrlen contacted was Fred Conforti, a local Knight, who pledged to assist in any way he could.

In just over five years, the Knights’ support helped DPD open its first group home in Clifton, the Murray House. It is the longest-running facility of its kind in the state, said Brancato, who is a member of Our Lady of the Highway Council 3835 in Little Falls.

Prior to the 1970s, adults with intellectual or physical disabilities were either institutionalized at state-run or private facilities or lived with their families. The first state-run facility in New Jersey opened in 1888, and efforts to deinstitutionalize persons with disabilities didn’t begin until 1978.

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Rudloff visits with Gruenert Center clients Anthony and Kelly. • Rudloff and Mindy paint a ceramic decoration. • John stands with Rudloff and Scott Milliken, DPD’s executive director.

Clients receive better care at DPD than at a state-run institution or hospital because they get more personal attention, said DPD Executive Director Scott Milliken, a member of Joseph F. Lamb Council 5510 in Oak Ridge.

“In an institution-like setting, there is roughly one staff member for 10-15 residents, while at DPD, in a community-based setting, you probably have a one-to-two or a one-to-three ratio at the most,” Milliken said, adding that the community system is actually less expensive.

Joanna Miller, DPD’s associate executive director, said that clients have access to better health care, too. “Folks are living longer in the community setting than in the institutions,” she said, “and there is more opportunity for community integration and socialization, which also enhances their quality of life.”

To support the good work that the agency is doing, the Knights of Columbus has raised more than $2 million for DPD since 1965. Brancato explained that the Order’s support continues to exceed that of “any corporate entity or individual donor.” Annually, Knights contribute about $100,000 to the agency’s $7 million budget, which is also supplemented by state and federal funds. Financial support comes from councils throughout New Jersey.

“The extra money is one of the reasons the homes look as good as they do and we can maintain our programs,” said Milliken.

The Knights’ connection to DPD, however, goes deeper than monetary donations. Eight of the 14 members of DPD’s board of trustees are Knights, and many council members — like Rudloff — donate time directly to clients.

Rudloff said his involvement with DPD was inspired by his pastor, Msgr. Paul Knaur of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Sparta. At the time, Rudloff had retired from his job as an engineering manager at AT&T after accepting a buyout at age 55. Msgr. Knaur asked Rudloff if he would be interested in serving at a Catholic Charities agency. When Rudloff learned that two of his friends served with DPD, he signed on as well.

“I didn’t get involved in the Gruenert Center right away,” Rudloff said. “It wasn’t until I started forming some committees that I started to become familiar with the clients, what our responsibilities were and how to better serve them. I wanted to be able to go there and feel comfortable and have them feel comfortable around me.”

Over time, Rudloff said the clients at the Gruenert Center became so comfortable with him that it was difficult to drop something off without being noticed. “Sometimes they would be looking out the window, and I couldn’t sneak in or out because they were waving to me as I was walking up,” he said.

The relationship between the Order and DPD can also be found in the names of some of its group homes, including the Columbus House and the Finnegan House, both in Oak Ridge. The latter was named in honor of John Finnegan, a past grand knight of Council 5510, and built entirely by Knights. Finally, there is the Calabrese House in Parsippany, which is named for Past State Deputy Dominick Calabrese as a testament to his dedication to DPD.

Calabrese was involved with DPD for many years even before he became state deputy in 1988. He did whatever he could for people with physical or intellectual disabilities and also worked toward paying off the mortgages of the group homes. However, at a DPD event in 1997, while presenting a plan to raise money for an additional facility, Calabrese suffered a fatal heart attack.

This tragedy did not prevent the Knights from continuing Calabrese’s work. Shortly after, the Knights of Columbus Patterson Federation, comprised of 55 councils from throughout the diocese, established “Dominick’s Dream” to raise about $200,000 to build a new DPD facility and to support other DPD programs.

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Robert Walker, a resident at Alexander House, plays the organ as Rudloff sits by his side.

FOUNDATION OF FAITH

At the Gruenert Center, clients like Peter Solensky work on tasks such as mass mailings, packing and shredding. On weekdays, clients participate in book clubs and classes that teach ceramics, theater and scrapbooking. They also conduct food drives for the needy and collect cell phones for the military, among other activities.

Milliken explained that the Knights’ involvement, as well as DPD’s overall mission, revolves around Catholic social teaching. “Part of our mission is treating people with dignity and respect,” he said. “People are very gratified to know that DPD is a Catholic organization, and part of that is the dignity of work every day. … It follows hand-in-hand with being all God’s children, and it is what we embrace.”

Thomas P. Ciborski, a membership and programs consultant for the Supreme Council, credited Calabrese’s example for bringing him into the “DPD family” as a board member 10 years ago. At first, Ciborski said, he was a little hesitant to associate directly with clients, because he didn’t know what to expect. “But the more I interacted with them, the more I saw they are beautiful people,” he said. “They all have something to give and have a different love of life.”

Ciborski said that one of the agency’s growing challenges, in addition to funding, is its aging client base. As Associate Executive Director Miller noted, people with disabilities are living longer than ever before, and DPD will need to start considering assisted living arrangements for elderly clients. Despite these hurdles, though, volunteers and staff members alike are optimistic about DPD’s future.

At the end of his day, Rudloff visited residents of the Columbus House and the adjoining Alexander House in Oak Ridge. In a sitting room at the Alexander House, after clients had returned from the Gruenert Center, Rudloff encouraged Robert Walker, 68, who played one of the countless songs he has memorized on the organ or piano. Walker, who has no family and has lived in the care of DPD almost since its founding, deftly played each song with one finger.

“When he goes to the local senior center to play, the residents there really look forward to it,” Rudloff said.

Rudloff knows firsthand how the work of the agency and the Knights’ participation reflect a commitment to serving neighbors in need, especially the poor and vulnerable, and giving everyone the opportunity to be part of a community.

“It is much more person-centered here,” explained Milliken. “Each person has goals and objectives that we help them achieve. It might not seem like much, but for someone to come from an institution setting and learn to say, ‘Hi,’ it is a huge accomplishment. It might take them a few months to learn it, but that is what we focus on for each person.”

To volunteer, make a donation or receive more information about DPD, visit www.dpd.org.

Chris Donahue is a staff writer for The Catholic Spirit in the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., and is a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Council 7250 in Milltown.