When Grand Junction Regional Center’s door closes, another door opens
Nurses and staff swarm around the home’s occupants who sit in wheelchairs and lie on gurneys. They lean their heads in close to talk, tickling clients’ cheeks and patting their delicate arms and legs. The smell of roasting turkey wafts from an oversized kitchen, and nearby, homemade framed artwork is displayed prominently above the dinner table.
“Arms up, show me your muscles,” a staff member tells client David Paul, who is attached to a device that helps him to stand, offering a break from his wheelchair.
David Paul is one of this home’s eight residents settling into a new place after living at the Grand Junction Regional Center.
He also represents one of 22 clients who have found a soft landing in one of the three homes built by the nonprofit Mesa Developmental Services after the Regional Center’s skilled nursing unit was closed in an effort to balance the state budget.
In just a matter of months last winter, officials from the nonprofit agency literally pushed the $2.3 million project from inception to completion, thanks in part to some developers who started work on the three, 4,800-square-foot homes with little more than a handshake.
“It was absolutely a cooperative effort from lots of folks,” said Jeff Nichols, chief executive officer of Mesa Developmental Services. “Certainly we took the lead, but it took a lot of people to help.”
Residents were moved in mid-April, which was a monumental shift for clients with mental capacity ranging from a few months to a few years. They also have complex medical complications. Residents, who for years were accustomed to the more regimented rhythms of the Regional Center, now find themselves in a less-structured, homelike environment, Mesa Developmental Services’ staff members said.
Mostly, the change of moving into the group homes means more outings for residents and the opportunity to be a part of the meal preparations.
One resident was thrilled that he would be able to grow a tomato plant, what he’s always wanted to do, but was unable to accomplish at the Regional Center. Because Mesa Developmental Services has more staff than the state allowed at the Regional Center, residents are more often getting out into the community.
Day programmer Maretta Cherry takes clients to museums and parks. They get to feed ducks and go on walks around Mesa Mall.
“I look at anything like: If I want to do it, then they want to do it, too,” she said.
At the Regional Center, there were not enough staff members for all residents to go on an outing at once, Kim Noblick said. Noblick worked for 21 years at the Regional Center and now is the nurse supervisor for the three Mesa Developmental Services homes.
The changes initially were stressful for staff, the agency and clients, but the new setup seems to be working.
Clients could not care less about the homes’ clean, open spaces and all the modern conveniences, Noblick said. But she has noticed changes in residents’ behavior.
In her two decades at the Regional Center, Noblick said she never heard one particular resident laugh out loud. To Noblick’s amazement, the woman did just that recently.
On Thursday, Noblick watched as two residents were returned to the home after an outing.
“They were hungry and tired, but very alert and animated,” she said. “They seemed to thoroughly enjoy it.”
Success also comes from Mesa Developmental Services hiring staff from the Regional Center, professionals who had long worked with those clients, Noblick said.
Staff were already able to use alternative communication skills with residents who often cannot speak, and they intimately knew the complexities of each resident’s medical conditions.
Mesa Developmental Services hired 57 staff members for the three homes and offered additional training for the increased level of care needed.
In one respect, Mesa Developmental Services was fortunate to build the homes during the recession and in the middle of winter when contractors’ costs were at their lowest.
But there were other areas where the agency could not cut costs, such as $26,000 for a customized, whirlpool-like tub that produces soft bubbles to protect clients’ easily bruised skin.
Because of the 24-hour care, some of the homes are outfitted with two sets of large appliances, such as refrigerators, washers and dryers and dishwashers.
Of the $2.3 million price tag, the agency raised about $1.25 million.
Mesa Developmental Services will be reimbursed for operating costs to care for residents, but capital costs were not covered, and the agency is looking toward a fundraising campaign to bridge those costs.
Mesa Developmental Services is able to operate the new homes at about half the cost to taxpayers that it costs to run the Regional Center, according to Mesa Developmental Services spokeswoman Marilee Langfitt.
Parents and guardians of residents chose Mesa Developmental Services as the agency they preferred to offer care to their loved ones.
Other options for care included nursing homes and private care facilities.
“This is well above the care that would be offered in a nursing home,” she said. “Better yet, it’s their home.”