By a new twist on a long-running program, one 7-year-old Northeast Philadelphia boy with significant medical challenges is able to live and thrive with his family at home.
For 36 years Catholic Social Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has offered the Life Sharing Through Family Living program. Through it, adults with intellectual disabilities and developmental delay live with host families and become part of them.
Recently Pennsylvania’s Office of Developmental Programs, which funds CSS’s Life Sharing program, began exploring how to extend it to children deemed to have “complex medical needs.”
Young Deacon Lawrence is the first of those children to live not in an institution but with a host family – in this case, in his own family’s home.
Even after spending his first two years in a hospital, today he needs the help of a ventilator to breathe and a tube for feeding twice a day. He also battles asthma and other conditions, and he remains nonverbal.
His mother, Monique Lawrence, had to juggle the stresses of her son’s subsequently frequent hospitalizations while working full time.
Then when the COVID pandemic hit in 2020, he lived in a children’s institution, and “it was hard to get him home,” she said.
“It was the most traumatic time of my life,” she added. “Having him home with me, that was the best. I don’t have to guess (about his health).”
The Life Sharing program and the stipend it provides, enabling Deacon to stay with her, “has taken a huge burden off my shoulders. It’s really a blessing,” Monique said.
Jolanda Stringfield runs the program as administrator of Community-Based Programs for the Communities of Don Guanella and Divine Providence, a division of CSS. She brings more than 23 years of experience working with children with a wide range of serious conditions both at St. Edmond’s Home for Children, a CSS facility in Rosemont, and as a care provider herself in the Life Sharing program.
She explained that the program currently has 71 adults with various physical and intellectual needs placed in 67 provider homes.
The adults range in age from 22 to 80. That includes one woman who two years ago at age 78 moved in under the care of a single adult woman, and the arrangement continues to be successful, according to Stringfield.
But she admitted it can be difficult to find support outside an institutional setting for children with “multiple medical complexities” and intellectual disabilities.
So in November 2021 the state office began exploring ways to extend that support for children. By December 2022 the Life Sharing program was offered for the first time as aid came to Deacon and his family in their home.
A 4-year-old girl in similar circumstance was also placed with a host family – the first in Pennsylvania to live not with her biological family – though still maintaining close family ties.
“Family members can serve as providers as long as they have a stable home and meet the requirements,” Stringfield said.
Based on a lengthy assessment of a special-needs child or adult, the state office assigns a daily payment rate for a host family. The rate ranges from $176 a day to $400 a day for adults, and $400 a day for children.
From that rate, the archdiocesan Life Sharing program pays a monthly stipend to the host family for room and board costs of the person served.
Stringfield’s work in the program began in January 2020 but she personally had opened her own home as a Life Sharing provider to a special-needs adult man for 16 years. He had grown up at St. Edmond’s Home for Children, and found a home with her as an adult.
“That (experience) helps me because I know what providers face, the decisions they have to make,” she said. “I have a different perspective because I’ve lived it.”
The man became part of her family, with even extended family members asking with concern if he missed a family function.
“He wanted to live in Life Sharing, it was his goal. It made me feel good. I got a little brother. He affected my life more than I did for him,” Stringfield said.
The experience has given her a personal and professional sense of fulfillment. “This is where I am supposed to be. God brought me to Divine Providence Division.”
The program she leads is actively seeking more host families, and she described one way a prospective host can get involved.
“We offer respite services for when a host family needs to step away” from care giving for a short time, she explained. Serving as a host for a limited time can give a prospective host “a taste of how it goes” to provide care to a person with special needs.
Stringfield said her office is working with the state office to bring on three more children to the Life Sharing program by the end of this year.
At the Lawrence household, the Life Sharing program not only benefits young Deacon, but his care teaches lessons of love for his three sisters Jennifer, Autumn and especially Schuyler, who has become Deacon’s “little mama,” said their mother Monique.
“She’s so compassionate. She opened her heart; she’s very sensitive. And he’s super happy.”
Learn more about the Life Sharing Through Family Living Program of Catholic Social Services, here.
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