Denise Reil solves problems.
When her son, Scott, was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, she guided him and her daughters through his loss of speech and eye contact. She helped him through physical illness—severe allergies, seizures—until, she said, he started to improve over time.
And when she was confronted with the realities of what adults with disabilities face after their parents die or can no longer care for them—the state places “emergency cases” anywhere there’s an opening—Reil didn’t accept it. She wanted to do her part to change that reality for as many disabled adults as possible.
So she started her own home.
Reil is the executive director of Visitation Home, a shared living residence in Hamilton for adults with disabilities. Visitation Home currently houses 15 residents in three full-time living homes, as well as 36 adults who participate in a day program held in the Saint Vincent de Paul religious education building. The people who live and spend the day at Visitation Home range in age from 21 to 70.
Scott was 10 when Reil first met his Department of Developmental Disabilities caseworker—and when Reil was inspired to start Visitation Home.
Scott, now 28, has had autism since he was a toddler. He was prone to seizures as a baby, and his speech whittled down to nothing. He stopped making eye contact and started shifting his eyes down.
“He lost everything,” Reil said. “He went from a child that was singing his nursery rhymes and ABCs and playing with his sisters to just being completely gone. It was a very difficult struggle for our family.”
Though Scott is still nonverbal, Reil says he has gotten better since he was a child. And when his DDD caseworker came by to talk about who would take care of Scott when he was an adult, Reil did what she’s always done and said he’d stay with her. She’d already taken care of him for a decade—why would that change?
The caseworker asked what would happen when Reil dies, or if she got too sick to take care of Scott.
“That’s a good question,” she thought.
Reil asked about her options, and the caseworker outlined the statistics. When Scott was 10, the waiting list for adults with disabilities to get placed in a home was over 6,000 people.
Now, it’s at 12,000 and still growing.
At the time, Scott was about 2,000 people deep on the emergency list—meaning he’d never get placed in his lifetime, Reil said. That was the case for 14 out of the 15 permanent residents at Visitation Home.
“Now, this is a child who is totally nonverbal,” Reil said of Scott. “He is so physically ill, has severe allergies and food allergies and all kinds of really difficult situations when his whole body got destructed. He would die without having routine in his life. Someplace totally strange, he wouldn’t know the streets, he wouldn’t know the stores, he wouldn’t know the people. His sisters wouldn’t be close by to visit him and check on him. I said to [the caseworker] that day in that meeting, ‘I don’t like that idea. I don’t like that you would send him anywhere.’”
So she asked the caseworker if she would be able to start her own home. Though shocked, he said yes, she could. Reil wrote to the DDD and outlined her plan—she would run the home “like a family” and make it a nonprofit that people could donate to.
Impossible without state aid, said the DDD.
Unacceptable, said Reil.
“When I heard that word ‘impossible,’ I’m a woman of faith,” she said. “I know that nothing is impossible. If God wants it, it will be. We forged ahead. We got our non-profit status, and we started to raise money.”
Reil connected with the county Department of Housing and Community Development, which provided her with a grant to purchase their first home in 2003, three years after Visitation Home incorporated. In addition to the grant, she raised over $200,000.
In November 2002, Visitation Home had $110,000 in the bank. The county offered to match that—if Reil could raise another $90,000 and bring the total up to $200,000 by February. When they were $14,000 away, the realtor who sold her the house offered to split her commission and donate the rest to Visitation Home.
The house opened for business shortly after, and it filled up quickly.
“In some of the cases, we would have a beautiful person with, say, autism, that functioned better and more at peace in with his peers, rather than in a regular family situation where they may feel left behind, feel like they don’t fit in,” Reil said. “You like to be with people like yourself. It takes a lot of the pressure off.”
Peg Ravatt’s daughter, Christine, was one of Visitation Home’s first residents. When Ravatt retired, she thought it would be nice for the Bordentown natives to spend one day a week volunteering. She first thought about going to Deborah, where Christine had open heart surgery, but that didn’t work out.
‘The community has been so generous because they understand that these precious people that we serve, they need us.’
A friend told Ravatt about Visitation Home, which she heard about in the Saint Vincent de Paul church bulletin. Ravatt called and made an appointment and met with Reil and Stan Krzyston, the pastor at the church. She wasn’t looking for a residence for Christine, who has Down syndrome, at the time, only a place to volunteer her time.
But one thing led to another, and Ravatt started to think.
“My husband and son had passed away,” she said. “I thought, ‘Maybe this is something we need to do.’ It was a safe place for her. At the time, there were only two other residents because they had just started. She was very comfortable. I was comfortable.”
Christine had dinner with the residents a couple of times, and then she was invited for an overnight stay. After that, she became a resident. She’s been at Visitation Home for 13 years.
“I left her there [for visit], and a friend of mine went out with me while Christine stayed there,” Ravatt said. “My friend consoled me because I was so worried. But they’re just so welcoming. Whoever goes in there, you feel as if you’ve been home forever.”
Residents get up around 7 a.m. and eat breakfast as a group every morning. Some have their own rooms, while others have roommates. The homes all have communal living spaces and areas where the residents can watch TV, snack, read and draw. Many residents are still active and in touch with their living family members.
“It was never, like, drop your kids and run,” said Morgan Tylus, Reil’s daughter and Visitation Home’s director of operations. “They feel that. That’s why we have home visit weekends every month. They look forward to going home and seeing their families, and yet they come back and they’re re-energized. They’re telling everybody what they did over the weekend.”
Soon, Reil was fielding requests from families about openings, and a year and a half later, she purchased a second home, a duplex next door to the first one. The county provided another grant, plus an additional $85,000 to refurbish it. Students from the College of New Jersey helped gut the building. Contractors donated their time to renovate it. Now, it’s like a brand new home on the inside and outside.
“The community has been so generous because they understand that these precious people that we serve, they need us,” Reil said. “It is our responsibility to serve people who need help. It’s our human expectation that we care for the people who are weaker than us. The beauty that I see in all of it is, No. 1, the generosity of the community. The love that people have given them. And the respect. They’re accepted in this community, this parish community loves them, supports them. These residents in our homes are treated so lovingly and with such dignity and respect, they don’t even know they have a disability. That’s the beauty of it.”
Of course, that home filled quickly, too, and Reil felt like it was enough. Until it wasn’t.
There was an empty lot between the two houses that Reil felt would be perfect for a third home. The county approved her plan and provided a predevelopment grant so the architect who designed the house could be paid before it was built. Everything in the home, which opened in 2013, is ADA accessible—bathrooms, sinks, as well as an elevator. The township provided $300,000 through a COA grant, and the county gave $500,000, of which $100,000 is a no-interest loan. (The other two houses are completely paid off, Reil said.) A friend donated and installed $200,000 worth of molding, solid-wood doors, and cabinetry.
‘It’s a very tight family, loving environment. I personally thrive here. You can’t ever go wrong with coming into work and knowing you’re loved.’
Reil, though, didn’t want the 15 full-time residents just sitting at home. She wanted to keep their minds and bodies active, so the residents were bused to a daily program. Some were unsatisfied with what it offered, though, so Reil and her staff tried their own program once a week.
“We started it one day a week, and they loved it,” she said. “I was still keeping them at the other program because I wasn’t sure. We had no money to do this.”
One day a week turned into two when a group of TCNJ students started volunteering. Then two turned into three. And Reil decided to just take on the full week after asking the residents and their families what they preferred.
“As people started to find out about it, more and more people wanted to come,” Reil said. “We had to make it more of a business. We had to make it more structured. I’ve always required that everybody has all the state trainings even before it was required of us. I felt that if the state thought it was right to have this training, it must be good, so we’re going to have it, too.”
The day program operates out of the religious education building near Saint Vincent de Paul, just a few hundred yards from the homes. It serves about 36 people, though not all of them come every day. The program, Tylus said, is skill-driven. The volunteers use a life skills curriculum designed for people with brain injuries.
The participants sometimes share journal entries and drawing with the class, or sing along with a nun who plays the guitar. Art and dance teachers stop by a few times a month. The classrooms are equipped with two Smartboards and often take day trips to apply the skills they’ve learned in the classroom to real life.
“It’s different every day,” Tylus said. “There are lots of things that they enjoy, like recreational activities, but we try to keep it academic. If they learned how to read in school, we want to keep them reading. You don’t want them to lose that.”
Working at Visitation Home is a dream job for Kate Myrick, a Hamilton resident.
“Something new has always gone on with them,” she said. “There’s always a story they have to share. They’re excited to see you. You don’t get that in a lot of work environments. You come in here, and you know you’re unconditionally loved, you’re happy to see them, and that’s what makes it so beautiful to come here. It’s a very tight family, loving environment. I personally thrive here. You can’t ever go wrong with coming into work and knowing you’re loved.”