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Faith in Action

"Faith in Action" Continued...

Issue: "The audacity of real change," Aug. 23, 2008

Fred Earhardt, the FIA committee chairman and self-described "nosey neighbor," lives next door to the men's home. He often stops by to joke and chat with the residents. He's also a member of nearby St. Paul's Catholic Parish. "Hey Pat!" Earhardt yelled as he entered the home, his voice rattling the cupboards. "Whadya think about Michigan State?" Pat, an avid University of Michigan fan with cerebral palsy, painstakingly pinched his nose and waved his other hand. "Phew!" he said. They both laughed.

Residents who are helped also help others. They greet visitors to various churches, fill bags for the local food pantry, sing for the elderly, make crafts at the senior center, and serve at soup kitchens. They also perform regular chores around the homes, from setting the table to folding socks. Said Guardian Board President Matt Wieringa: "We're empowering residents to do what they can do within their ability level." When residents aren't challenged to contribute, "they regress."

Guardian is even challenging residents to purchase their own homes. The organization has broken ground on a condominium project, intending to sell the units to developmentally disabled people in Grand Rapids. Condo residents would become part owners along with one to three roommates. The point is to teach responsibility, Guardian director Cyndy Longchamps said, and integrate able residents with "normal" community members. As this program and others continue, GAH leaders hope that stereotypes and fears associated with the developmentally disabled will recede. "It's harder to get people to volunteer with people with developmental disabilities than it is with, say, the elderly," Downer explained.

While different, "these are people who have great wealth within themselves, and they are a wealth to our community," said 97-year-old philanthropist and men's home namesake Ralph Hauenstein. A witty and direct man, he served as chief of military intelligence under Dwight Eisenhower and has a developmentally disabled son. FIA treats residents like individuals, he said, not like burdens.

Residents have caught on. One Hauenstein resident, Paul, has become the defender and caretaker of Fitz's mentee, Bobby, who is very shy. "Bobby," Paul said on a recent afternoon, "why don't you sing 'Jesus Loves Me'?" Bobby perked up and Paul led him to the piano, where Bobby gently placed his frail hand on top of the yellowish keys and played what sometimes resembled chords. Past his broken and missing teeth came whispers of words and a melody.

When Bobby finished, Paul, who had mouthed every word too, clapped and cheered softly, "Good Job, Bobby! Good Job!" Bobby stared at the keys and whispered, "Jesthus lufsme."

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