Over the past three decades, Don Rieb, executive director of Aid to the Developmentally Disabled, in Riverhead, has seen state-run institutions for those with disabilities close, to be replaced by the type of community housing he's spearheaded.
In 1983, when a number of parents wanted to get their children out of crowded state-run institutions, they contacted Rieb, who had a 10-year track record of helping those with disabilities at AHRC Suffolk. At the time, people with physical disabilities were sometimes put in psychiatric hospitals, said Rieb, and "they really didn't belong there."
The state was about to open a community residence in Riverhead. "They said to me, if you're willing to take on this agency and get this off the ground, we'll let you operate that residence rather than us," remembered Rieb. He won a $47,000 grant, launched that first residence and continued to add more.
He now runs community housing for 163 people with developmental disabilities or mental illness. Some have physical impairments as well. Residents live in a homelike environment with therapeutic supports and have access to the 3-acre Northville Sensory Gardens, where a number of residents work caring for animals and growing vegetables and flowers.
Is there a waiting list for your residences?
There is a long waiting list. And one of the concerns of many parents who have a disabled child is, What's going to happen to them when they get old? Providers like us used to work off our own waiting list, [but] that's not happening anymore. Now we have to wait for the state to tell us who they want to give us, and it's taking a lot longer.
How do the residences operate day to day?
They have 24-hour staffing in a majority of the houses. And then we have something called an apartment program where there's three people living in an apartment and a case manager goes in to check on them and to advise them and to help them out. These are individuals who have disabilities that aren't as intense as some others. It's different for each one, but we try to help them get jobs, and we have people working in Costco and different food establishments, and we follow them fairly closely. But the vast majority go to day programs.
Does Long Island's shortage of affordable housing make it tough?
Very tough. And it's getting tougher. One of the issues is that the housing prices are going up, obviously. And then the funding that we're getting from [Medicaid through] the state of New York has been reduced significantly.
You've said that some of your employees would make more money at Burger King making French fries. How do you keep your staff motivated?
Whatever [hourly rate] the state allows us to give, we give. They're [also] going to get a pension benefit, up to 75 percent of their medical for themselves and their families, they're being trained, they're treated like professionals. We have a lot of people working for us 16, 17, 18 years, and our turnover is probably around 12 percent, which is pretty good for this industry. We're screening the people very carefully coming in. And generally, we get people who really want to work for other people. If you invest in your employees and train them and treat everybody as a professional -- which they are -- we find that their turnover is going to be a lot lower. Money's not the whole thing. It's really the way you treat your employees, I think, [that] has everything to do with it.
Can you explain the Padavan law?
It says [the public has] to show cause why [the disabled] cannot move into a community. And, you know, my stance and every other provider's stance is that those who come into this world [disabled] through no fault of their own -- maybe the most fragile in our society -- have a right to lead a fulfilling life in a community just like anyone else does. And it's no different, having five or six people living in a house, than a large family. My view is "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" applies to everyone.