As is the case with any group of new roommates, Mark Flannery, Cody Lewis and Justin Borrero are getting used to each other’s quirks.
Lewis, 34, is the outgoing one, while Borrero, 30, is a tech expert, explains Flannery, 48.
Integrating with each unique personality is just part of the challenge for these three, who are all adults with autism living apart from their families for the first time.
They are among the first of five residents at Oak Tree Farm, a new affordable housing community in Conway designed for adults with autism and intellectual disabilities to live as independently as possible.
SOS Care, the Murrells Inlet nonprofit building and managing the new community, is hoping to eventually house as many as 100 adults, helping to address a lack of appropriate residential availability for this population that is quickly reaching a crisis point in South Carolina and nationwide.
Sarah Pope, CEO of SOS Care, said adults with autism and intellectual disabilities frequently live with aging caregivers.
More than 6 million people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, about 83% of the total in the U.S., don’t receive publicly funded residential supports, according to the Autism Housing Network, which adds that about 872,000 of those adults are living with caregivers older than 60.
Lorri Unumb, a Lexington-area autism advocate, said South Carolina needs to invest more funding into this need because too often people with developmental disabilities stay home with their families until their parents die.
“That’s the worst time ever to transition a person with autism to a new setting,” she said.
Bruce Seidman, whose adult son with autism still lives with him and his wife, said the thought of what’s going to happen to their son when they’re gone “pervades every thought, all day long.”
“We’re going to be dead at some point and he’s going to be on his own, (…) and that’s pretty scary,” he said.
Seidman and his son, Garrett, visited Oak Tree Farm recently, and for the first time, Garrett put a timeline on when he might be willing to live on his own — “maybe five years or maybe 10 years from now, maybe.”
Setting a good example
Pope noted that more than 250 parents have already expressed an interest in the new community for their children, a clear sign of the need in South Carolina, and they’re all paying close attention to the first group of residents, who she calls their ambassadors.
Flannery said he relishes that role, giving hope to other people with special needs that they could one day live independently.
“My parents are so proud of me,” Lewis said. “They didn’t think I could do it.”
Pope said they’ve been working with Flannery, Lewis, Berrero and other individuals with autism for years, and the decision to move forward with Oak Tree Farm was really their choice.
“Our whole mission is really independence, and we were getting them to the point where they’re working, being their own advocates, learning as much as they can, but they’re still going home every day and living with their parents,” she said. “They wanted to be together in a community.”
SOS Care is currently working on fundraising to build Oak Tree Farm’s community center and is in the final stages of approval for a multi-million dollar low interest loan from the S.C. State Housing Finance and Development Authority to help build Phase II, which will include apartments buildings that can house 47 more people, according to Pope.