West Milford It may not be your average American household with 3.20 inhabitants, but it is very much a family home, and one whose level of caring and commitment could be a shining example for all families. It’s the Wehrlen House and it’s been here in West Milford in the High View Estates development since 1989.
Located in a typical suburban neighborhood, Wehrlen House is a Catholic Charities Department for Persons with Disabilities (DPD) group home for adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities.
Named for the founder of DPD, Monsignor John Wehrlen, the facility is one of nine such group homes and two supervised apartment programs in the Paterson Diocese. The DPD homes have been singled out as role models across the United States.
The DPD’s goal is to treat each individual with dignity, respect and compassion and to foster independence and active participation within their community and in society as a whole. The clients are treated like family and in some cases the DPD is the only family they have.
Marcia Wynne is the director of Wehrlen House. She was on a legal career path at Seton Hall University when she began to work part-time at one of the homes. It was soon evident where her future would lie.
“It’s a job you really just fall in love with,” she said.
Wynne currently has five clients residing at Wehrlen House. With the dedicated assistance of six employees and three volunteers, the clients, or as Wynne prefers, “our ladies,” live in a family-like atmosphere. They range in age from 29 to 73 years old and they enjoy sister-like relationships.
A typical Wehrlen day
The day begins early at Wehrlen House. Up by 6:30 a.m., the ladies dress and have breakfast together. At 8 a.m. they go their separate ways to locations that provide skill-level employment for some, to day programs for others. They all arrive back home at 2:30 p.m.
“When they come back they like to take a shower and pack their lunch for the next day,” Wynne said.
Then it’s time for some fun - a trip to Dunkin’ Donuts, a movie or a walk. At dinner time they gather at the table and, as in many families, some hostilities may arise.
“There’s usually an argument about who gets to lead the prayer over dinner,” Wynne said.
While their schooling is usually completed by the time they come to Wehrlen House, there’s always room to learn more.
“One of our ladies is learning sign language. It’s an awesome feeling to see them learn and help with the process,” Wynne said.
The home is ecumenical and the women are encouraged to participate in a church of their choosing. Some attend programs and services in Catholic churches, and two ladies are currently attending a local Baptist church.
There is 24 hour supervision at the home, including two live-in staff members, but the women are encouraged to be as independent as possible.
Teaching what’s important
There is no average length stay for the clients, it depends on their level of disability and health related issues. Alzheimer’s disease tends to strike Downs Syndrome patients quite often. Recently one of the women was transferred to a nursing home.
“When they leave it’s devastating to the whole house,” Wynne said.
Wynne has nothing but good things to say about Wehrlen House and her clients.
“The ladies teach me what’s important. They give so much back, it’s a blessing to work for them. They are touching and heart warming,” she said.
She went on to tell the story of a trip to McDonald’s. Seeing a charity collection box in the store one the ladies put all her money into the box. When it was time to order she said that she wasn’t hungry, and “I spent all my money, anyway.”
Wanting to give back
Volunteers bring sunshine to the home on a regular basis. Some bring therapy pets, some teach gardening, others come as friends for a particular lady or for the whole group. New volunteers are always welcome.
Wynne would very much like to begin programs that would allow them to give back to West Milford. She hopes that by becoming involved in a food pantry or a school, for example, the community would get to know her ladies and all would benefit from the experience. She feels their involvement in the community may help to overcome the stigma attached to persons with disabilities.
Anyone interested in volunteering or any organization interested in contacting Wynne may do so by calling her at 973-409-2765 or contact DPD Director of Development Chris Brancato at 973-406-1104.
Wynne’s commitment to her ladies is evident.
“It’s a great honor and a privilege to be able to work for the ladies. Through their kindness and love I have definitely become a better person.”
The Wehrlen House is indeed a family home - where love and respect allows each member to flourish.