Tamir Appel scampers to his room to pull out a photo album of his latest trip to visit family in Israel.
He sets it on the dining room table, where some of his housemates are gathered to talk about their daily life at the Ryzman Family Group Home for Men in Valley Village, one of three run by the Etta Israel Center, the only Jewish group homes on the West Coast.
But Appel’s and Mayer’s show-and-tell is making Seth Katz and Max Stein, who both have autism, a little nervous. They are eager to get back to the movie they were watching.
Katz gently pats Stein’s hand. “That’s ok, Maxito. It’s almost your turn,” he whispers, using Stein’s family nickname. Katz’s concern for his roommate of five years is clear, despite his somewhat mechanical voice.
Stein washes cars at a Toyota dealership and takes ceramics and computer classes at a day program. He announces that he will soon be going on a date with a beautiful girl from his class (with both of their mothers along), and Katz reaches out to shake his friend’s hand in congratulations.
Katz is a movie extra – he most recently sat in the audience in the final scene of “The Muppet Movie,” and he takes acting classes at Valley College, a community college. He goes to Universal Studios Hollywood whenever he can.
“This is much more independent for my adult life. I lived with my parents before. I don’t live with my parents now. I live here now. This is my adult life. I take care of myself, and I like my own things,” Katz said.
Eighteen residents live in three group homes in the San Fernando Valley. The first opened in 2000, and a fourth is opening this spring. Many families are on waiting lists, but there is very little turnover, because when people move in, they truly make it their home, according to Michael Held, founder and executive director of Etta Israel.
“They’ll say to their parents, ‘I want to invite you to my home for a Chanukah party,’ and the parents are usually impressed by that – even surprised. In their own loving way, they don’t realize the independence their special needs adult seeks or has,” Held said.
Around 12 percent of California’s adults with developmental disabilities live in group homes or similar small settings, according to a policy note by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.
Group homes are usually run by non-profits, and the residents’ government benefits are paid directly to the home. The home is not allowed to ask the resident or family for additional payment.
Etta Israel receives around $2,100 per resident in state and Federal funds to run the home, but it costs Etta Israel approximately $1,000 more per resident to staff it properly and to provide enriching and Jewish programming. Etta Israel makes up the rest in fundraising.
Many group homes run on a shoestring, and some have earned a reputation for providing not much more than adequate babysitting, Held acknowledges, but the Ryzman group home, a cleanly decorated five-bedroom ranch house, presents an entirely different picture.
Appel, who is 36 and has developmental disabilities, is busy every day—he works at a market greeting customers, taking inventory and stocking shelves, and gets a paycheck, he says proudly. On weekends, he helps his dad shred documents at his business, and he volunteers at a food pantry and takes in the recycling.
Appel displays a pair of clay candlesticks he recently made at the Artistic Jewish Spectrum, a program at Our Space at Valley Beth Shalom. Appel’s much less talkative roommate, Jon Garden, plays basketball at the Jewish Community Center on Sundays, and takes classes at a day program.
Mayer, 28, says he loves to cook. He makes pasta, hamburgers, fish, and Sloppy Joe’s – Max’s favorite, Mayer says. The men split the chores and the cooking, and one of the round-the-clock staff members supervises.
Mayer’s Down syndrome has made his speech, but not his enthusiasm, difficult to understand. He tells tall tales about doing back flip dives on a recent family camping trip, and insists he works at Etta Israel (he is an ambassador, Held concedes).
Mayer just started an intensive literacy course at Valley College, and lost 30 pounds by upping his workout to 40 minutes on the treadmill that sits in a corner of the living room, near a computer and across from a mounted flat screen TV.
Many evenings and on weekends the men have outings with residents of the other group homes. On Shabbat they go to Shaarey Zedek for services, and usually get invited out in the neighborhood for dinner and lunch.
“I love my group home, and I have a good life – my own life,” Mayer said. “And one day, I’m going to get married, and then I’ll move out.”