Shared Living program offers independence to Sioux Falls man
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Ben Graff is the ultimate host.
He’ll run to greet guests with a hug or high five as soon as they walk in the door. He’ll then scurry them off on an eager tour of his new house in central Sioux Falls, pointing out photos or flourishes on the walls that help signify him starting a new life.
He’ll grab his communication device to share a bit more about himself. Through the device, Ben can tell you his favorite foods, his birthday, who his parents are and introduce his new roommates.
Ben’s parents, Neil and Debbie Graff, weren’t sure if the 25-year-old would ever be able to live on his own, without their constant care. Diagnosed with global developmental disorder at 2 years old, Ben Graff’s been heavily dependent on his family his whole life and is experiencing self-governance for the first time, the Argus Leader reported.
“As Debbie and I are aging, Ben’s working on establishing his own, independent life,” said Neil Graff, a former NFL quarterback who works as a financial adviser in Sioux Falls.
A program from Resources for Human Development South Dakota called Shared Living has helped make it possible.
Shared Living has taken off in South Dakota in the last two years. The first employee started in June 2017 and now the program serves 19 individuals with disabilities across the state. Most of them have been paired with families looking to add to their lives and help someone looking to get a fresh start on their own.
Shared Living is about building healthy, happy relationships that last, said program director Kelli Anderson.
“It’s a different way of living,” Anderson said.
It was an unexpected but long-awaited blessing for the Graff family, which has struggled for years with love-driven attempts to build up Ben for a safe, independent life.
Watching Ben zip around his house near Augustana University and jump on his beloved new roommates brings a smile to Debbie’s face.
In the Shared Living program, individuals with disabilities are paired with qualified providers who assist with the adjustment to a new home and way of life.
“It’s just such a cool thing,” Debbie Graff said. “Ben is in a home with someone who cares about him. I never would’ve thought his life would have had a total turnaround like this.”
The opportunity comes six months after a yearslong battle over alleged misuse of restraints against Ben Graff by staff during his time living at Children’s Care Hospital and School, which has since combined with South Dakota Achieve to form LifeScape. The Graffs started noticing drastic behavioral changes in their son during that time.
The normally happy, loving and outgoing teen would show more signs of aggression and acting out when it was time to go to Children’s Care, the parents testified in front of a Minnehaha County jury in May. After a two-week trial, the jury ultimately ruled in favor of Children’s Care, leaving the Graff family devastated.
“We were broken,” Debbie said.
Fast forward to Ben Graff’s first nights in his new home, and any sign of nervousness or agitation has washed away — from Ben, his parents and his new roommates, Jenna Askelson and Kayla Harris, who serve as live-in care providers.
From the few hours the Argus Leader spent with Ben just a week after he moved in, happiness seemed to radiate from him every time he jumped on the couch, pointed to his Christmas decorations or hugged those around him.
Ben Graff’s home is his reflection.
Designed to maximize social interaction, living room couches and chairs surround a large ottoman, so those seated are squared for conversation — or in Ben’s eyes, perfectly baited for playful wrestling.
Ben’s love for Christmas is showcased with character figurines in a glass case and Santa Claus images on the walls, watching over the bustling activity filling the space. Pictures of friends and family cover remaining wall space, so Ben can see all the people who have supported him in his life.
The house has been waiting for him for four years. Ben’s parents bought it with hopes to find a way he could live in it.
The decor is a mix of his mother’s collecting over the years — mostly coffee-toned, sturdy, rustic furniture from family and garage sales — and his roommates’ belongings.
As it turns out, their furnishings meshed as quickly as their personalities.
Just a week into living together, Ben Graff acts as if Askelson and Harris are bonus sisters added to his family.
He gobbles up Askelson’s chocolate chip cookies and cupcakes, whipped up in a kitchen that features a compact eating nook with a table and two chairs overlooking a full-length window.
Ben’s room, strategically close to the kitchen, is watched over by a 5-foot Santa and a large picture of a train centered on a wall. Right outside his door are stairs that lead up to Askelson’s and Harris’ area, making it easier for him to be their alarm clock every morning.
“He comes up and knocks on the wall in the stairway, doesn’t come up and wake us up, but he’ll knock on the wall,” Askelson said.
As soon as Ben’s awake, each day turns into an adventure, Harris said.
It’s just one of the reasons the two click so well. They both have a thing for trains and trying new things.
Harris’ dog, Chuchi, was named after a train that chugged by about 10 years ago. Ben Graff for years has watched trains at the station near downtown, gone on walks at the mall and taken trips on the trolley.
Harris plans to add to the activities list and take him to karaoke night. They’re all looking forward to regular visits to see Santa at the Empire Mall.
Ben and Harris’ relationship began years before they became roommates. Harris worked with Ben while she was a direct support professional at Children’s Care. They didn’t work together every day, but Harris can quickly recall fun memories of crafts and silly outfits.
“I wasn’t worried about (this living arrangement) because I’d known Ben and love Ben,” Harris said.
The three roommates are learning a new rhythm with Ben’s routine, figuring out how to balance time with him and time to themselves. They have a calming room to help deescalate any behaviors that come up.
But mostly, they just have fun together.
“There’s never a dull moment,” Askelson laughed, somewhat stiflingly under the weight of Ben’s recent tackle.
Askelson didn’t have any experience working with people with disabilities, and was nervous to make the move to South Dakota to live with a man she’d learned was non-verbal, and heard stories about sometimes aggressive behaviors associated with some autism.
But as soon as she met Ben Graff, those worries washed away.
“I had my reservations; I was nervous about it,” Askelson said. “But right away we became friends. He’s so happy and warm. You can be in the worst of moods, all you need is some Ben.”
Like a matchmaking service, Shared Living employees think about who would make a good pair, then the parties meet up multiple times and start building a relationship. Eventually, if a connection seems strong, stable and safe, it’s time to test out a living situation.
Shared Living evaluates applicants with background and sex offender registry checks and interviews. Once cleared, the participants go through around 50 hours of training, depending on the participants’ background and knowledge of persons with disabilities.
The individual with disabilities move in with that person or family, and Shared Living employees will check in at least once each month to see how their new shared life is going.
Not every match works out.
Anderson said the program had a pairing fall through in July, but even that can be seen as a success for people with disabilities looking to start a new life.
“We’re learning a lot,” Anderson said. “We have rough days, don’t get me wrong, but they have the best life they’ve ever had.”
Anderson had met the Graffs in 2016 when the family went out to eat at a restaurant where she was a server. She told them Shared Living might be a good option for them, and gave them her contact information.
About a year later, Debbie Graff reached out asking for more information.
Another year’s worth of coffee dates later, the women and the rest of the Shared Living and Graff family crafted the ideal living situation for Ben: his own home near his part-time magazine delivery gig and close to Augustana, where his sister goes to school, allowing for regular drop-in visits.
“Deb and Neil, they deserve to be Mom and Dad, and Ben deserves this life,” Anderson said. “We want to make an impact and have a purpose.”
Ben goes to LifeScape every day for a few hours, a connection the Graffs are thankful for, even after the rocky relationship in LifeScape’s former title of Children’s Care.
Neil and Debbie Graff are going to focus on their marriage, and Debbie plans to spend more time with her mother. They are looking forward to alternating weekends with Ben, who will also go home for garbage day to help out his friend at Novak Sanitary Services.
They no longer are anchored to their worry about Ben’s future. He has people who will care for him in the long run, and they’re hoping other families consider doing the same.
“We can be secure as parents to know that somebody is watching out for Ben,” Debbie Graff said. “I know he’s OK, and that makes me very happy. It has been a dream and it came true.”
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com