NEW GLARUS — Mary Anne Oemichen and Susan Wallitsch were both mothers of young children when they met. Each woman was a practicing lawyer and both had a child with significant disabilities. Their children saw the same pediatrician and both eventually had to give up their law practices because of the demands of caring for a high-needs child.
Among their many similarities was that neither mother knew what would happen to her child when she could no longer provide care for them.
“The second or third time we got together, we started to talk about what happens when they grow up,” Wallitsch said.
The two women did not know what they were going to do in order to provide their children with the best possible quality of life once they were gone, but they knew that they had to do something.
“In some ways in the beginning, we didn’t know exactly what we wanted to accomplish,” Oemichen said.
After talking among themselves and reaching out to other families, they settled on the idea of implementing an integrated housing community that is accommodating toward people with autism. Unlike most housing opportunities, their community would keep in mind the unique needs of people with autism and other disabilities.
Now, 24 years later, the idea is coming to light as Home of Our Own in New Glarus becomes a reality.
That’s where the building that you see began … Two moms trying to figure out ‘what does it mean to have a child with autism and how do you support your child?’Susan Wallitsch, Mount Horeb
“That’s where the building that you see began … Two moms trying to figure out ‘what does it mean to have a child with autism and how do you support your child?’,” Wallitsch said.
The building in question is a three-story building on six acres of land near Valle Tell Drive along Elmer Road. It is visible from the highway and overlooks much of the city.
New Glarus Plan Commission members met in late 2018 to discuss the possible development, which has since broken ground.
Oemichen and Wallitsch came up with the idea because of the demand back home, but they are not alone. One in 54 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, according to 2016 data released by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2020.
“The need for assistance for people has grown tremendously,” Wallitsch said. “Most people with autism are going to need some level of support throughout their lives.”
Having one’s own housing can be difficult or even dangerous for many people with disabilities. It is estimated that nearly one-half of people with autism will wander or bolt from safety, according to the National Autism Association. More than 30% of people with autism will also have significant challenges in daily function, while one-third are nonverbal.
Bullying, self-injurious behaviors and a lack of appropriate and affordable housing are all issues faced by people with autism. Home of Our Own hopes to change that.
A growing issue
Families often have to plan for years where their loved one with autism will end up living once the family can no longer care for them.
“We pretty much immediately were very mindful and aware of what his adult life would be like,” said Katie Jacobson, a Monroe mother, of her son with autism who will hopefully be making the transition to Home of Our Own once it opens in December.
While housing for those with intellectual disabilities and autism is available throughout the country, waitlists for them can often last for years. Even when someone is able to move into a safe, affordable location, they will often have to relocate to a larger or more urban area, which can be difficult for some, Oemichen said.
For Jacobson, the arrival of Home of Our Own has helped remove the “huge, huge burden” of finding safe and comfortable housing for her adult son, Griffin.
“We sure can’t wait until there’s an emergency,” Jacobson said of finding a permanent housing location for Griffin, who will soon be 22.
For Griffin Jacobson and others like him, around-the-clock care is required, which is something that many apartment buildings will not accommodate.
“The need for this is there and very high,” Jacobson said. “For somebody like Griffin, this is really exactly what we were looking for and hoping for.”
Home of Our Own is different from other housing opportunities, such as group homes or affordable housing available to those with higher support needs. The facility will offer residents complete privacy with their own bathrooms and bedrooms while also allowing a community feel in the building’s many communal areas.
At many group homes or other available housing, residents have to live on a schedule that can prevent them from having a living situation truly customized to their own lives. At Home of Our Own, Jacobson hopes that Griffin will have the opportunity to live a more independent-style life while still receiving the 24-hour care that he needs.
“We have always known we wanted a place more customized to Griffin,” Jacobson said.
Home of Our Own’s Prairie Haus, the first of two phases in the project, will feature 40 units. Of those, 10 include additional accommodations for higher-needs residents. Eight of the remaining units will be three-bedroom townhomes intended for families and the final 22 are one- or two-bedroom units available to anyone, with or without a disability. While only 10 of the units include extra accommodations, each unit is ADA compliant.
The need for this is there and very high. For somebody like Griffin, this is really exactly what we were looking for and hoping for.Katie Jacobson, Monroe
Accommodating special needs
Wallitsch and Oemichen had to take many different aspects of the housing into consideration in order to create an environment that is both comfortable and practical for people with high support needs.
The building’s 10 “garden apartments” are specially designed for extra accommodations. They are each on the ground floor, which can feel safer and are easier to get around for people with disabilities.
They also have luxury condo level soundproofing. The soundproofing is intended not only to help those with sensory disorders who may be extra sensitive to loud noises, but also to minimize sound travel for those who shout or yell when upset.
“Their sensitivities are protected as are their neighbors’ right to enjoy their apartment in peace and quiet,” Wallitsch said.
The garden apartments also include roll in showers and reinforced drywall.
The building’s hallways are wider than in a typical apartment or condo in order to increase mobility and allow more room for wheelchair access and the rugs and carpeting throughout the building are also wheelchair friendly.
The ground floor of the building, which houses the garden apartments, is also set to include a walking loop, allowing residents to exercise and move around without having to go outside.
It’s been important for Home of Our Home to create a unique, community feel within the building, which includes many community areas.
Open kitchens and common rooms are available for those who want a community feel while still maintaining their own space. One of the common rooms is designed specially to offer a smaller space with more quiet interactions.
Throughout the building, couches, TVs and a fireplace are available to residents. The seating areas are important, Oemichen said, because people with high needs will sometimes find themselves “stuck.”
“That’s a phrase that a lot of people don’t understand,” she said. “They literally get stuck and cannot move and sometimes they need just a space where they can say ‘alright this space looks safe to me, it looks comfortable … I’m going to sit down here before I continue and move on.’”
Part of HOOO’s focus on community includes not only the rental community, but the community in which it resides as well.
Right from the get go, I was just enthralled at what they were proposing. They hit the ground running and they never stopped working on it.Beth Luchsinger, New Glarus
When the idea of an integrated housing facility was initially brought to light, it was met with a positive public response, despite some opposition. While some community members were hesitant to welcome such a large project to the neighborhood, others were excited at the idea of New Glarus’ housing opportunities continuing to grow.
Beth Luchsinger holds the District 28 seat on the Green County Board of Supervisors, where HOOO will be located. Immediately upon hearing the idea, she became a strong advocate of the project.
“Right from the get go, I was just enthralled at what they were proposing,” Luchsinger said. “They hit the ground running and they never stopped working on it.”
Luchsinger has seen and heard public comment on the project throughout its entire process.
“There were people who really opposed it,” Luchsinger said. “But as things went forward, there was more acceptance. Sometimes, people are very resistant to anything that changes ... I think that as time has gone, the comments that I hear in my daily activities are nothing but praise and admiration for what they’re doing ...”
Getting such a large project running was no small feat for the families involved, and various entities helped make it possible. The project’s non-profit partner is Wisconsin Housing Preservation Corporation, an organization that aims to provide affordable housing to the state of Wisconsin.
WHPC worked with HOOO to secure tax credits and hire architects and contractors. The corporation owns and manages affordable housing in 58 Wisconsin counties.
The project has a total estimated cost of $8 million. Of that, $7 million is to be financed by grants, tax-credit and low-interest mortgage financing with an additional $500,000 being pledged in grants. HOOO has committed to fundraising the additional $500,000.
Applications are expected to open in August with a tentative move-in date in early December 2020.
The Jacobsons, Wallitschs and Oemichens won’t be the only ones to see benefit from an integrated housing facility. Luchsinger hopes that the location, which will include a covered patio area, walking paths, a fitness studio and rooftop patio running the length of the building, can serve as a social hub for the community’s senior population.
Because most of the units are considered affordable to individuals who earn 30, 50 or 80% of the Green County median income, the site also offers housing and community opportunities for others who may not otherwise have them.
“What they set out to do was to make sure that their children were going to be OK as adults, but it turned into an overall project of community awareness,” Luchsinger said. “I’m not only an advocate because I’m part of our community government. I’m an advocate because I think it’s good for our community.”
To learn more about the project, get involved or donate, visit http://www.homeofourown.org.