Escalon church's home plan under way

ESCALON -- A wood-framed sign in a field next to Escalon Covenant Church shows the dreams of some of its members: A house on church property for six people with autism, Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities.

The idea was inspired years ago by former pastor Brian Wiele. He suggested the congregation use some of its land to serve vulnerable people often left without advocates, and he noted a young developmentally disabled woman in the congregation who might one day be able to move out on her own if the church had a home.

For the past five years, church members and supporters have met and worked on the plans and then drawings. They received Planning Commission approval a couple of months ago for the home that will be run by a nonprofit they created, Escalon Covenant Enabling Residence.

Now, they intend to start a campaign to raise $300,000 to begin building the $1 million, 5,000-square-foot home with six bedrooms and activity room.

The church donated a 99-year lease on the land. And the group has a $150,000 donation from the national Covenant Ministries of Benevolence. The group hopes to get a mortgage for the rest.

"It seems so right," said Susan Paulsen, 52, who has led the effort. "It seems we do a lot of things in life that do not mean much, and this seems to be something that is going to matter for a long time."

She said the idea is to serve adults who do not need 24-hour care but don't have the skills to live on their own or with the help of a similarly abled roommate. Plans include a suite for a live-in caretaker to help with meals and guidance.

"Kids are supposed to get to grow up and spread their wings, so this offers that piece that wouldn't be there if they didn't have these homes," said Devona Degnan, a teacher for developmentally disabled students at Johansen High School in Modesto who is helping with the home.

The enthusiasm has already reached the family of one of her recent graduates, 18-year-old David Hill.

"It would be good for him because he can feel like he is on his own," said his mother, Virginia Hill, 48. "It would be good for me and my husband as parents because we could be empty nesters and get that respite we need because (David) does require a lot of attention."

David, who has autism, likes movies and girls. But he is academically at a kindergarten level, his mother said; he can't read and often seizes a phrase in a movie and repeats it over and over again. He responds negatively to most physical touch and needs a rigorously structured schedule in order to maintain an even keel.

He says he would like to live on his own like his older brother, Miles, 21, who is in the Navy. The family explored a group home in their Modesto neighborhood but were taken aback when the home unexpectedly closed. Regulators wouldn't tell the family why, leading Hill to worry about worst-case-scenarios like abuse. Hill said a home at a church would make her more assured her son was well-treated.

The group's plan has challenges to overcome.

It has 501(c)3 charitable status to collect donations. But it is depending on state and federal dollars and resident's earnings to pay the mortgage and ongoing expenses. Also, to use public money, it will have to become approved by the local agency that regulates and matches services to people with developmental disabilities, the Valley Mountain Regional Center.

It hasn't begun formal talks with Valley Mountain Regional, said Executive Director Richard Jacobs.

He said those discussions are important to make sure there is a need for the proposed services so that when the home opens, Valley Mountain Regional can place people there.

In addition, to get approved -- and stay in compliance -- he said the group will have to show it won't mandate religion as part of the curriculum or present religion in a way that might be misconstrued as being required by those with developmental disabilities. That requires special consideration to their vulnerabilities and level of understanding, he noted.

The group's Web site, www.escaloncovenantenabling.org, advertises the home as striving to offer "a Christian alternative" to secular homes run by local communities or government agencies. It says the home would offer "a lifestyle grounded on biblically based Christian values and standards."

Paulsen said the Christian component is strictly voluntary and would include activities similar to youth group outings with church members who might also do things like hold Bible studies and help find opportunities for residents in the community.

For Virginia Hill, who is a born-again Christian, the religious theme is the best part about the plan.

Church is the one place her son David lets go of the nerves that mark so many of his days.

"He is very aware that it is a place where he is loved, and it doesn't matter how handicapped they are, they understand that they are loved there," Hill said. "He has this little phrase at church where he says he's 'open' when the pastor says to greet one another. And if he says he's open, he'll let people shake his hand or hug him, and he doesn't do that other places."

Paulsen said one thing for certain is residents would have a supportive neighbor.

"I'm sure whoever is living there will be adopted, almost like becoming part of the church family," she said. "They will be loved."

Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at imiller@modbee.com or 599-8760.