Emmaus creating family-like homes for individuals with intellectual disabilities


In the United States, nearly half a million individuals with intellectual disabilities live in some kind of community living arrangement or “group home.”

Due to the extensive waiting lists for services, priority is given to individuals in immediate need, often because a family caregiver has passed away or is aging and no longer able to provide 24-hour care and support to their loved one. While some of these individuals are able to spend the holidays with siblings or other family members, many spend them with their housemates and the employees who are paid to provide care.

The Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh is a local non-profit that provides permanent homes and other services for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Emmaus is built upon a model of people with and without disabilities sharing their lives with one another.

“Emmaus is committed to building community with our residents, staff, volunteers, supporters, and neighbors. We do it with intention, and this is never more important than during the holidays,” according to Executive Director Karen Jacobsen.

“This is an especially difficult time for some of our residents who have lost the parents who raised them and have no family to spend the holidays with. We strive to make it special, to make it warm and home-like, and many of our direct support professionals sacrifice time with their own families and loved ones to share these special days with our residents.”

Ms. Jacobsen describes the holidays at Emmaus as being like those at any family home. On Thanksgiving, the residents work with their staff to cook a big turkey and share a meal together. At Christmas, they deck the halls with lights and decorations. Volunteers and staff work to cook up a big breakfast, and they make sure that all of the residents have some special gifts to open on Christmas morning.

Many of our residents carry on the religious traditions they grew up with, whether lighting an advent candle or attending a Christmas service. At Emmaus, the staff members have a chance to build real relationships with the residents.

It’s difficult to work long evenings or on the holidays, but they grow to really care about the residents, and many have reported what a gift it was for them to be able to share a holiday with the residents, Ms. Jacobsen said.

“It’s not easy,” she continued. “We are licensed service-providers, and that comes with many additional regulations and requirements that impact the set-up of our homes, the responsibilities of our staff, and the way we provide services. But during the holidays—and year-round—we do everything we can to focus on celebration, joy, and ensuring that our residents with intellectual disabilities have the best lives possible. They deserve it.”


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