Othello Elliott, right, of Albany, is serving as a mentor for Timothy Chavers, left, who is autistic,through the Georgia MENTOR program. The mentor program provides host homes to children and adults who are intellectually or developmentally disabled as an alternative to state institutions.
ALBANY, Ga. — Opening up your home to someone in need can be daunting, yet rewarding at the same time.
Othello Elliott, while having been exposed to the Georgia MENTOR program before, has learned that by participating in it firsthand.
Georgia MENTOR is a program designed to create a solution for the state’s agreement with the Department of Justice to close state hospitals in the implementation of the Olmstead ruling made by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999.
The agreement, which began in October 2010, addresses the provision of community services under the Americans with Disabilities Act in accordance with the ruling — which is designed to provide the least-restrictive living environment possible for children and adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
As part of the agreement, Georgia was to begin closing state institutions — including Southwestern State Hospital in Thomasville. The MENTOR program was established so that those coming out of these hospitals would be provided a host home — at which the mentor, or “roommate,” as officials like to call the person in that capacity — would open up his or her home to the individual in need.
From that point on, the mentor helps meet the everyday needs of whomever he or she is serving.
“We carefully match them with a host home provider because we want it to be a long-term arrangement,” said Toreka Hicks, program manager for the Albany MENTOR office. “We want individuals to live as close to a natural environment as possible.
“Due to state hospitals closing, there is a need for host providers that can work outside a hospital. (The individuals) need to live in a home setting also. In a community setting, they can thrive.”
Hicks said those being served through the program are given the option of which community they want to be in. An individual will often do several house visits with potential mentors, giving them the opportunity to determine in which home they might feel most comfortable.
“They are allowed to give input on things, including the color of their room,” she said.
Elliott, an Albany mentor, welcomed Timothy Chavers — a 23-year-old autistic — into his home on March 19 as part of the program.
From what officials can tell, this arrangement has already made a significant difference for Chavers.
“He actually talks now,” Hicks said. “We can see the growth in Timmy. When we match them with someone that works (with the individuals), they grow really well.
“In such a small amount of time, we can see a major improvement (in Chavers). All these individuals need is someone to care for them, to just take time with them.”
The Albany office reaches out to an 11-county region in the Southwest Georgia area. There are 27 homes within the region hosting someone, with 14 homes in the process of going through the system as of Friday, Hicks said.
Elliott has had family members, including his mother, who have worked with the program’s Atlanta office. Consequently, he knew a lot about Georgia MENTOR before signing up.
“My mom’s a nurse, so there was some pressure for me to go into that field,” Elliott recalled.
After high school, Elliott came from Atlanta to go into the nursing program at Darton College in 2006. He didn’t finish, but still felt compelled to do something in relation to that field — so, last year, he made a call to the Albany MENTOR office and underwent a three-day training regimen to work as a host.
Elliott’s usually wakes up at 6 a.m., two hours before Chavers does. After breakfast, Elliott takes him for a day program at Easter Seals Southern Georgia that lasts from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday. This will sometimes be followed by an evening walk, or Elliott will take Chavers with him to the gym.
One of the times in which Chavers seems most engaged is during a car ride, Elliott said.
“He likes to ride around,” he said. “He likes new scenery. When we are somewhere new, he likes to walk around. He likes looking out the window.”
Elliott will also make sure Chavers gets to the doctor, and that his medications are taken at the time he needs them.
“He sits at the table and cleans up when asked,” the mentor added. “He might not do it well, but he tries.
“He’s been doing much better since he’s been here.”
Thanks to a team including coordinators, nurses and other mentors in place, those receiving the services are not the only ones with a support system.
“This program is working well because we are able to support Mr. Elliott to support Timmy with his needs,” Hicks said. “He has support from us, and he has a nurse that checks on him. It (the program) is helpful for everyone involved.
“We are making a difference. These individuals deserve a life as normal people. This helps them live a very productive life.”
With the way the program is designed, services can evolve over time to meet the needs of the person it is helping. In Chavers’ case, the day program at Easters Seals gives him an opportunity to get involved in activities outside his mentor’s home — thereby giving him the chance to develop social skills.
“It depends on what their needs are,” Hicks said.
Those placed into homes are generally referred to the program through other agencies, Hicks said. Adults are generally anticipated to stay in the homes long term, while the children the program serves stay until they reach age 21.
Due to the amount of time spent together, the mentors develop close relationships with the ones they serve.
“I met him, starting working with him and now we are the best of friends,” Elliott said of Chavers. “I have to look after him. He is my responsibility; nobody messes with him.”
The experience has been rewarding enough for Elliott to encourage his friends to do it as well. In the course of doing so, he has noticed there are generally more single women than single men who want to do it.
From personal experience, Elliott is able to say that it is not as much of a burden as it seems. In fact, with other mentors to help watch Chavers, he can still work in time to hold a part-time job as a barber.
“I can still do all the things I was doing, it’s just that now Timmy has to come with me,” he said.
The Albany MENTOR office is located at 2220 Watergate Court. For more information on how to become a mentor, call the office at (229) 435-6601 or visit www.thementornetwork.com.