Shared Living, Meaningful Life

Wendy-Jo arranges Sarah’s hair into soft coils, asking “Ready for some curls?” and gets Carol ready for a family photo. Wendy-Jo is an RHD Life Sharing provider, and Sarah and Carol are clients — but they are very much part of the family.

RHD Life Sharing provides shared living and supported living services for individuals with intellectual developmental disabilities and autism in the Lehigh Valley. The Life Sharing provider is a community-based, family-oriented home that offers people the ability to participate and contribute to the household, while promoting personal growth and independence. Wendy-Jo and her family have been part of the Life Sharing community for more than 10 years — Carol celebrated her 10-year anniversary with the family in October, and Sarah has lived with them for nine years.

“I like shared living because it’s a long time commitment,” Wendy-Jo said. “Lifesharing is family. Carol and Sarah are family, and family stays together.”

Lifesharing providers receive extensive support, training and ongoing oversight in order to support and assist the individual in service. RHD Lifesharing combines housing and a full array of community supports to help individuals achieve stability and live successfully in the community.

“Lifesharing is a pretty old concept that’s similar to foster care, except that foster care ends with individuals at the age of 18 or 21,” said Patricia Kreil, Director of RHD Life Sharing. “The goal here is that it’s a life-long commitment.

“We don’t know how Wendy-Jo does it, but the whole family is that way — they are all involved in the care of Sarah and Carol. The most successful families all have family involvement. Wendy-Jo’s family is the perfect example of this.”

The family travels with Sarah and Carol on annual vacations. On a dolphin-watching cruise in New Jersey, Sarah swam with the dolphins. Carol celebrated her 60th birthday in November complete with a DJ, dancing, and her favorite foods.

“They care for Carol and Sarah as if they were their own flesh and blood,” said Michael James, the RHD Lifesharing Specialist who oversees Carol and Sarah’s care. “This is not something they are doing on the side; this is their life. They give 100 percent of themselves to Carol and Sarah.

“They are one huge family, right down to the five dogs. When you walk through the door, you feel a warmth that is undeniable.”

RHD has years of experience in developing home- and community-based supports for individuals who may have extensive and complex needs. With the success of RHD Life Sharing in the Lehigh Valley, RHD has begun implementing the Life Sharing model in other states, including Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota, to hundreds of individuals who formerly resided in state centers and state hospitals.

Individuals supported in RHD’s Life Sharing programs gain the stability and independence that comes with living in the community in a family-oriented model, and receive support in expanding their circle of friendships, pursuing community interests, and becoming active, full members of their communities.

“We started out with one home and grew to three homes in about a year,” Kreil said. “Almost every year since then, we’ve doubled in size. “The families that become Lifesharing providers are really proud of what they do. I have not had to do any recruitment — our families recruit each other.”

RHD Life Sharing providers say the experience is beneficial for the whole family.

“Being an RHD Life Sharing provider has been one of the most rewarding experiences that I’ve ever had,” Ruica said.

“I love being a life-sharing provider with RHD,” said Avon. “It is very fulfilling when you see the strides people achieve while in your care.”

“Being part of the RHD Life Sharing program has been a great experience,” said Deanna. “It is a good feeling to see the people that live in my home continue to learn and grow. The people that live in my home feel part of the family and we all continue to grow, learn, and respect each other.”

Wendy-Jo relishes making room in her family for two women with special needs in her role as a Lifesharing caregiver to Sarah and Carol. The family has remodeled the home several times over the years to accommodate Sarah and Carol’s needs, and with support from RHD Life Sharing they moved into a new ranch home in January to better support Sarah and Carol.

“Patty was so helpful, making sure we knew what we needed,” Wendy-Jo said. “When we moved in, Patty sent an organizer to help. I know if I have a problem, I can go to them and I am grateful for the help they provide me.

“We might be a big, loud, busy and crazy household, but we do what we need to do to keep everyone happy, safe and healthy. I wouldn’t trade my life for anything. I love my family.”