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Wheaton charity breaks ground on new residences

WHEATON – A five-decade-old charity organization recently marked its desire to expand its presence in Wheaton with a groundbreaking ceremony on two new community homes for intellectually disabled adults.

STARS Family Services provides opportunities for those with disabilities and their families, including events, camps and residential living for adults who have aging parents. The organization already has one full-time residence, and had a groundbreaking for another two residences at 377 N. Cross St. on Sunday.

Dawn Clark, the director of Disabled Ministry at the affiliated College Church and a member of the STARS board, said the housing aspect of members’ outreach came after seeing a troubling problem in the adult disabled population.

“Several years ago, we saw that aging parents were struggling with their own health needs and still had children with special needs and had trouble balancing both,” Clark said. “There was a really big need for housing for mentally disabled people in the state of Illinois.”

Clark said a few decades ago, parents of the disabled were told it was likely their children would survive only a few years. Now, she says, there is a resident in the STARS program 50 years old and many more like him, and “society was not prepared” to handle the needs of older families with disabilities.

Michelle Linhardt, the STARS board treasurer who has a son with Down syndrome, said each new residence will hold up to six STARS at a time, one being dedicated solely to women with special needs. Construction is slated to finish sometime early in 2014.

Each residence also employs a full-time community builder to work overnight and a large staff of trained volunteers and part-time employees to help the STARS.

But there is a lot of independence, Clark said. The residents do things around the house by themselves, including cooking and cleaning, and work once a week at the STARS resale shop, which funds job and life skill training programs for residents and more than 100 other STARS supported in the ministry.

“We try to give them life skills so they can do these things on their own,” Clark said. “We also have the parents or friends or family of the STARS volunteer in the home so there is a family presence. We want people who know the STARS to be there for them.”

The groundbreaking was part of several weekend events for College Church and STARS Family Services, including the 10th annual Run for the STARS, which raises money for the program. Clark said the numbers are still being added, but more than 800 runners joined the event and the charity raised nearly $30,000 in corporate sponsors alone.

Although there is still a lot to do with the new development, including selecting the residents, Clark said the STARS program is looking for more ways to continue helping the population it has reached out to since the 1960s.

“We’re always looking ahead,” she said. “Another big need is work. There is 80 to 90 percent unemployment in the population and they want to work and have meaningful things to do – meaningful work that builds them up.”

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