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The People's Voice: Nothing disabled about clients' hearts

The government couldn't be more spot-on: Developmentally disabled people would be able to live perfectly happy lives without institutions like Kreider Services in Dixon and Self Help in Sterling.

And that's because, no matter how many bushels of lemons life dumps on their doorstep, people like the residents of Hilltop group home just keep churning out lemonade.

They eagerly hosted me – they even cleaned the house and Dusted, too, folks – Tuesday afternoon, to show off what they've done with the place.

Click here to hear the podcast

Since moving into the group home in June, the gang has turned their residence into one big “man cave,” complete with pool table, foosball table, arcade-style basketball machine, and even a drum set in the basement.

That's where the Hilltop residents' consensus spokesperson, Jacob Hoak, tears it up, his cymbal crashes sizzling, the thump of his kick drum filling the two-story home to its proverbial gills.

Since moving to Dixon from the Stockton-Galena area, Hoak also has developed a reputation around town as a dancing machine. It's not unusual for Bullseye staffers to have to pry him from the dance floor at bar close.

Hoak's "redneck buddy" and roommate, Al Cleary, has emerged as quite the handyman. He used to live in a 15-bedroom group home, with a much older clientele. But Kreider works hard to group together similarly functioning clients and give them a chance to thrive in their group homes. Cleary is a poster child for the results they're after.

"His personality has come out so much," said Amanda Chavez, who directs two homes in Dixon, including Hilltop, and manages four more in Amboy. "He's doing things any normal 27-year-old should be doing."

David Ziemke, another Hilltop resident who recently returned from Florida with lots of pictures and timeless memories formed at Disney World, takes guitar lessons and snowshoes.

All five guys have their niches. Their passions. And they are mainstays in the recycling center toward the back of the Kreider building.

Between periods of baling cardboard to be hauled to Secure Recycling, the guys recently showed their ginormous hearts. Hoak filled countless carts with items that locals had dropped off at Kreider's front desk. Then the fivesome sorted the goods to be donated to the relief efforts for victims of the Washington tornado.

They even donated some of their own clothes. Hoak said the day the tornadoes ravaged the central Illinois town, he knew he had to help "on another level."

Places like Kreider have a place in my heart about as big as one of those gentlemen's tickers.

My first extended brush with the developmentally disabled was at Eisenhower Center in Milwaukee, where my mother-in-law works. I watched clients who can move only their heads, but they push buttons with expert timing to make machines specifically built for them carry out a task while they work. The end result can vary. The button's depression could trigger a conveyor, push compressed air into a bag, or trigger a staple gun.

Machines are built and tailored to the specific abilities of clients.

Kreider has contracts with a number of companies, including Rayovac and Wahl Clipper, for whom the clients build trigger switches. It's precise work, involving tiny pieces of plastic, copper and ball bearings.

I can't begin to wrap my brain around how far clients have come to do those jobs, and just how much it means to have them.

You might know I'm a softy, but it brings tears to my eyes.

My M-I-L has, for some time, been fearing the fate of the Milwaukee institution. Locally, you've likely read about Murray Center in Chicago. Hyper-locally, Mabley Center was recently at risk of being closed.

The government's argument is that these institutions cost billions of dollars to be run. And many officials lean on misguided opinions that guys like Hoak would have burst out of their shell just the same if they simply lived in a group home.

Sorry, but no way, no how. Skills verbal and non-, as well as confidence, can be properly fostered only in centers like Kreider.

In this land of opportunity, it would be criminal to stunt – or strip altogether – the opportunities these centers afford their clients.

About 10 of Kreider's 300-plus clients have jobs outside of the center. For those whose realistic goals don't include punching a time clock elsewhere, Kreider tailors jobs in which they can thrive.

Their staffers coach Special Olympics teams. I remember leaving Kreider a couple of summers ago after interviewing the two gold medal teams and being unable to wipe the smile off my face for days.

That's because I knew how much all the little things meant to them, and how much I take those things for granted. Conversely, I tend to let little things get under my skin. Such toxicity burns, when I think about how they'd let those little things slide off their back.

Speaking of little, how about Kreider's early intervention program? Kreider staffers help children from birth to age 3 with needs to develop as best they can.

Since Tuesday, I've often found myself looking into the eyes of my daughters and wondering, should they be autistic, how in the world would I help them live as happy and productive of a life as they possibly could?

I hope I wouldn't have to wonder that, and that Kreider, Self Help, etc., will always be around. When I first reached out to Kreider Marketing Coordinator Becky Reilly about this story, she said, "In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to rely on government support."

But reality bites. As would Uncle Sam's decision to cut back any support.

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