Visit by Judith E. Bessette, EdD, January 30, 2007
Just the name of the city - San Juan Capistrano - conjures up an image of old world elegance brought to the California coast by the Spaniards over 200 years ago. Built in 2003, Casa de Amma's handsome facility and flawless grounds measure up to that image and more.
The name of this facility, a unique apartment community built to be a life-long residence for special needs adults, combines the Spanish heritage of the area - Casa means house or home - with the Icelandic word - Amma which means grandmother. In this case, the name pays homage to the grandmother of one of Casa's first residents, a young adult whose parents were the driving force behind the creation of this wonderful facility. They continue to be active on the Board of Directors. While their teen was completing high school at Riverview, on Cape Cod, they began looking for the right next step. When they could not find "the right place" the idea of building Casa de Amma began to take hold.
Casa de Amma serves young adults with complex learning or mild developmental disabilities as a primary diagnosis. Most have fallen between the cracks of existing services and programs. All residents have mastered self-help skills and possess the behavioral and emotional skills that allow them to live in a close community, be employed and lead a full, adult life. One thing that all residents have in common is that they cannot live on their own - they all need a safety net around them and a social net as well. Another thing the residents share is that they come from families who want them to be challenged to achieve their potential, belong to a community and experience a full life in an accepting environment.
It was a pleasure to tour this facility with Andrea Erickson, the Executive Director. About four years ago, Andrea, who has worked to help people with disabilities achieve greater independence for nearly 30 years, joined the Board of Directors. At the time, she was the head of a large social service agency in the San Diego area. When the Executive Director's position opened up, she was immediately approached by fellow board members but initially turned them down. And then, one day about two years ago, she looked around Casa de Amma and realized this place was the dream come true she had envisioned for so many former clients…and the rest is history!
Andrea's enthusiasm for all that goes on at Casa de Amma is palpable when she takes you on a tour. We looked at both a one-bedroom apartment and a two-bedroom unit, 800 square feet and 1200 square feet respectively. Each has a kitchen, living room and dining area and a bedroom. The two-bedroom units also have two baths. Each unit has a private patio area. There are also gorgeous common areas including an outdoor pool and spa, both indoor and outdoor dining areas, indoor and outdoor activity and exercise areas and a movie theater outfitted with comfortable high-backed leather chairs - and even a popcorn machine.
There are 27 one-bedroom and 4 two-bedrooms unit at Casa de Amma. A few openings are available. While the idea is that Casa will become a resident's home for life, there are some circumstances that may result in resident coming to a decision to live elsewhere. Certainly, health needs may dictate a move - but it is also important to recognize that residents are expected to behave in ways that maintain the safety net for the entire community at Casa de Amma.
Casa de Amma is designed for young adults but over time there will be a broader age span. The vision is that as openings occur in the future, new young adult residents will join the existing residents. Because Casa de Amma is a community, it is essential that residents "fit" and older residents may choose to live elsewhere in their later years. A number of the current residents are former Riverview alums. A growing number have come as referrals from educational consultants.
I learned that while the annual fee covers nearly everything, including "rent", breakfast each day and dinner six nights a week, major maintenance issues as well as keeping up the grounds and common areas, water, trash and gas, residents are responsible for electricity, television, phone, cable and internet. Residents are also able to furnish their apartments themselves. There is a requirement for a checking account with a balance of $1000 as well as proof of medical insurance and a plan (either insurance or private pay) to meet dental needs.
Each resident has an individualized life-plan that organizes their week. All of the residents either work - full or part-time - or are involved in vocational experiences or as volunteers in the community. The staff assists residents with the Department of Rehabilitation, adult education and community college courses, job development, mentoring and employment monitoring, and in working with community resources. During my visit, residents were coming and going - some by cab, some on bikes and even a few in their own cars (but never with other residents as passengers).
Casa De Amma likes to think of itself as "a family of families." There is an active Family Association that supports resident services. Social events like the Monthly BBQ bring families and friends together on a regular basis. There are also weekly activities planned for residents that include the things Southern California is known for…biking, going to the beach, skiing, fishing…and excursions to events like the Orange County Fair and music at Newport Beach.
The staff members are all a part of the family at Casa de Amma. All have college degrees and participate in weekly in-service sessions. Staff come with social work backgrounds, with work experience with special needs populations and with specialties in vocational rehabilitation and recreation therapy. As I met various staff, I was struck by their energy and excitement about their work.
Casa de Amma - Grandmother's Home - is a very inviting place for a very special population of residents.
Thank you for the great article!
As a parent of one of the resident's, Meghan Finn, I can tell you that this truly a parents dream come true! We are blessed and only wish that more individuals with substantial resources would consider an investment such as this so that more places could be built around the country.