When Robert Hinton visited the construction site of his future east Macon home, he was eager to learn where his bedroom would be located.
Hinton, who is moderately mentally disabled, is among the last clients of River Edge Behavioral Health Center who will move into homes designed to offer more space and better integrate people with disabilities into communities.
Over the past five years, Hinton has lived with two roommates in a small Macon apartment. This past Wednesday, the 53-year-old, wearing a black long-sleeved shirt tucked into his black jeans, grinned as he arrived at the Maynard Street property for the first time to see the progress on his new digs.
A Stafford Builders & Consultants construction worker rolled out the blueprints to show Hinton the layout, and Hinton pointed out the bedroom he wanted to claim for himself. But the room wasn't the only thing that intrigued him.
"So, what's that?" he asked. Another smile crept across his face when he realized the house would feature front and back porches.
When Hinton moves into the four-bedroom home later this year, he'll continue having daily care available from River Edge. His new home will be one of 15 owned by River Edge that will provide more space for about 40 residents who also attend a day program from morning until afternoon. There, Hinton and other River Edge clients are able to work and interact with other people.
"The day programs zero in on what the individual's strengths and weaknesses are, especially in trying to enhance their job skills to get a job in the community," said Lara Walton, residential coordinator for River Edge. "They (also) work on social skills."
Hinton's progress is monitored by "lead supporters" who help with everything from cooking and taking medications to driving him to various places. While he needs that level of care, he still has his independence. Walton said it's important that he integrates into the community.
"We are a person-centered organization," she said. "It's getting them out in the community so they can make relationships that are unpaid. If (Hinton) starts going fishing and makes a friend, we want them to keep in touch. They may miss a week (of seeing each other) and the guys call and say, 'we missed having them there.' That's when they've made a relationship that is important to them."
Hinton receives a weekly check, and it's up to him how he spends it.
"They have to decide what they need with that money and what they want," Walton said of the clients. "We try to teach them some money management."
Hinton's case manager, Kwansheryle Gates, ensures that he makes each of his appointments and that his other needs are met. The success of the clients requires constant communication among the lead supporter, case manager, residential coordinator and others.
That also includes weekly visits to the homes.
"I make it my duty to go to each of my houses to check in on them," Gates said.
One of the difficulties some clients face is not being able to spend as much time with family members, Walton said.
They sometimes don't understand that their family may be busy with their lives and can't see them as often as the client would like.
For Hinton and others, there's also an emphasis on healthy living. That means monitoring what they eat and, in Hinton's case, daily walks, Walton said.
Keeping the clients busy is one of the most important aspects of the program. They'll attend Mercer University basketball and baseball games, go grocery shopping, and they recently made a trip to the Georgia state Capitol for Developmental Disabilities Day.
"They are well known at Mercer games, front and center," Walton said. "Cheerleaders would give them shirts. They interact with the students."
Hinton himself is an avid bowler and has his own ball to take with him on weekly visits to play at a local bowling alley. Hinton also is getting ready for another season as a catcher on a softball team. Additionally, he plays horseshoes and likes to fish, as evidenced by a photo displayed on his dresser of a large catfish he caught several years ago.
Hinton said he's a fan of listening to Michael Jackson songs and watching the news. And he enjoys talking about his girlfriend, Janet, whom he speaks to on the phone between their weekly visits. When asked what he enjoys most about his girlfriend, Hinton promptly responded that it's more than "like."
"I love her," he said.
The pair goes on dates, and Hinton has a T-shirt with their names airbrushed on it. The shirt features a silhouette of Mickey and Minnie Mouse embracing.
BUILDING A HOME
Hinton will be among the final River Edge clients who lived in apartment complexes to move into new group homes. These final three group homes have been built with $900,000 provided through the federal HOME Investment Partnerships Program. River Edge sought out the grant from the Macon-Bibb County Economic and Community Development Department. The money was available to disability agencies looking to build affordable housing, said Cass Hatcher, chief facilities development officer for Georgia Behavioral Health Services, the nonprofit arm of River Edge.
Around 2009, River Edge decided to move away from using apartments and started building group homes instead.
"We used to go out and buy a house for $80,000 and spend another $40,000 to $50,000 to rehab it," Hatcher said.
Hatcher said that in 2010 he began working with the city of Macon to seek out vacant houses that had been taken over by the local Land Bank Authority.
"The first property was (on) Northbrook Avenue in north Macon. We took a house in a nice neighborhood, sitting there abandoned. We rehabbed it, and the city gave it to us at no cost," Hatcher said.
The opportunity for HOME funds changed that process, allowing River Edge a way to build new homes that are designed for residents to live out the rest of their lives. The homes are designed with materials that reduce utility costs by about 40 percent and have features that include ceramic roll-in showers, step-in therapeutic tubs and a system that circulates fresh air throughout the rooms.
"It's called universal design. Anybody can live there, people with a disability or without a disability," Hatcher said. "As they age and need wheelchairs and walkers, all that is incorporated into the initial design and construction."
During Hinton's 30-minute visit at the construction site Wednesday, he asked a flurry of questions, including when he'd be able to move in. Even knowing he could have to wait until the fall didn't dissuade his excitement.
Walton, the residential coordinator for River Edge, said the new site will not only offer more space but also offer more opportunities. Walton said she's excited by the possibility that residents can have their own garden.
"These guys pay the bills, and now they will have a place to call home," she said.
To contact writer Stanley Dunlap, call 744-4623 or find him on Twitter @stan_telegraph.