Givers: All together 

Giving People

June 25, 2024

Volunteer Linda Riedel assists Ben, the author’s son, at a group outing at Bowlero in Matthews

Bowling, cookouts, art and more: Residents of a Charlotte group home engage in fun activities thanks to quiet support from a local foundation.

by Vanessa Infanzon | photographs by Grant Baldwin

A pug named Jake should be credited with getting me more involved in my son Ben’s group home. My friend brought Jake over for a visit one evening in April 2023. She’d called to ask, “Jake is great with people — could he visit with Ben and his five housemates?” Sure, I said. 

Jake won over the hearts of everyone. One resident, Sam, shared a memory from his childhood about his pug, Geraldine, named for comedian Flip Wilson’s alter ego. It was the most I’d ever heard Sam talk. Ben held Jake tightly on his lap in a hug, an unusual moment of calm for my frenetic son. Once assured that Jake didn’t bite, Bill, another resident, petted him and rewarded us with a grin. The other residents gathered around, waiting for a turn to touch the pug’s light brown fur. Jake soaked up the attention, and I realized how a simple activity started conversations and introduced new experiences.

Ben was born with a rare genetic disorder called POLR2A. He has developmental disabilities, uses a wheelchair to get around, and is vocal yet nonverbal. In fall 2022, Ben, then 19, moved into the Ashcraft Residential Home, a six-bedroom group home operated by Easterseals PORT Health. The Raleigh-based nonprofit, which supports people with disabilities and mental-health and substance-use challenges, operates 25 group homes in North Carolina, including two in Charlotte. The home, built in 1984 close to Park Road Shopping Center, was Ben’s second foray into living away from our house. The first had been a disaster, partially because he didn’t have housemates. My anxiety about a new placement was high, and when resident Steven welcomed Ben to “the Ashcraft team,” I knew we were in the right place. 

Left: Steven, a group-home resident, approaches the lane at Bowlero. Right: Ben, Linda Riedel and Sam, a group-home resident.

After the success with Jake and with the support of the group home’s manager, I started planning activities for “the guys” — what most of us call the six men ranging in age from 21 to 69 — living in the group home. We set up art projects, bocce ball, corn hole, meditation, movie night and pet therapy. A local artist, Lena Hopkins-Jackson, drew caricatures of each resident. During football season, Next Level Tailgates parked its Panthers Tailgate RV at the home for a party. And a brother-and-sister duo, Adam and Rosie Refaey, performed classical music on the front lawn. With the help of family, friends and neighbors, we planned 22 activities and partnered with eight businesses and organizations in 2023. 

“It’s a good thing, and I want to do a lot more,” Steven says, when asked about activities. “[The activity planners] always want to surprise me. It makes a difference to be special.”

Together Project

Since 1999, the Merancas Foundation, a Charlotte-based nonprofit founded in 1989 by Anke and Casey Mermans, has funded ESPH’s various initiatives through a renewable grant. Merancas Foundation assists organizations across the country with a focus on children and youth programs, adult pathways, and crisis support. Nonprofits such as the American Red Cross, Boys & Girls Clubs, Council for Children’s Rights, Disability Rights & Resources, Habitat for Humanity and Meals on Wheels are all grant recipients. 

In fall 2022, ESPH earmarked $3,000 from the grant for the Together Project, a new initiative to spark community activities after the pandemic slowed everyone’s ability to get out and about. 

“Covid had an even larger impact on our folks because not only were we in lockdown but then staffing issues came about,” says Nina Deese, director of specialized consultative services for ESPH throughout North Carolina. “We saw a larger impact for our residents — not just socialization but emotional and physical well-being.”

The Together Project was piloted at the group home where Ben lives because it’s in the heart of Charlotte, which has many options for community engagement. 

Once Deese and I realized we were doing the same thing — providing activities for the guys — we teamed up and brought in the group home manager and the state residential director for ESPH. Deese oversees the distribution of the funds for the Together Project, and our group meets monthly to discuss potential activities at home and in the community.

We asked the guys to complete a form, giving them the opportunity to advocate for activities they would enjoy and share how they’d want to celebrate their birthday. Seeing the Carolina Panthers play at Bank of America Stadium is high on several lists, but the guys are open to trying just about anything. They always have the option not to participate in group activities. 

Left: ESPH’s Nina Deese, second from left, takes a break from bowling with group-home resident Steven and volunteer Linda Riedel. Right: The author with her husband and their son, Ben. 

“I think we’ve seen a positive outcome,” Deese explains. “It was a great way to hear their voices as individuals and ask them in great detail their preferences and tailor the activities around what they want to do.”

The Together Project also relies on staff members feeling empowered to provide meaningful activities for the residents. Since the program’s inception, the caregivers who work in the home have arranged outings, art activities and cookouts. Deese also wonders how the scheduled events impact downtime: Has Together Project planted the seed for residents and staff to start impromptu activities such as walks in the neighborhood, card games or decorating for an upcoming holiday? She plans to collect data on this going forward.

With the success of the pilot program, Deese hopes to implement the Together Project on a larger scale by using connections and resources to recruit volunteers who have the skills to coordinate activities in other group homes. “Long term, I’d like to see something like this replicated and offered to all of our residents across the state, regardless of funding opportunities,” Deese says. 

Bowled over

In early February, three ESPH group homes met at Bowlero in Matthews to bowl and eat lunch — a Together Project event. Participants high-fived each other after a strike and volunteers gave hand-over-hand help to those who needed it. Staff members distributed awards for best hat, best shirt, best socks, most enthusiastic and biggest comeback. 

Michael Riedel, an avid bowler, lives with his parents and has been receiving services from ESPH since 2008. He joined the bowling party because he and his family are friends with some group home residents. Riedel helped his mom choose prizes for the awards. “It is great to see like-minded friends enjoy time together,” Riedel writes in an email. “They are some of the kindest people I know.”

Each time the Together Project hosts an event, I marvel at the way residents, staff and volunteers interact with one another. They’re laughing and smiling, asking one another questions about their day or simply engaged in the activity in front of them. I soak in each moment, try to capture their happiness on camera and focus on being thankful that we get to be part of our son’s second family.  SP

Featured image: Left: Volunteer Linda Riedel assists Ben, the author’s son, at a group outing at Bowlero in Matthews. Below: Steven, a group-home resident, approaches the lane at Bowlero. 


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