Life can be hard enough, but when you have a disability—or “differently-abled,” as some put it—life can almost seem impossible at times.
Luckily, help is out there in the form of Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, Inc. (FREE), an organization headquartered in Old Bethpage. Its goal is to help the disabled get a foothold towards independence and employment in a world where the opportunities can be few and far between for those who are a little different.
FREE was formed in 1977 by a group of Long Island families with the intention of establishing alternative housing options for their disabled children. Since community-based housing for this population was rare in those days, many of these children may have otherwise been institutionalized. Therefore, FREE was born, and from there it evolved and expanded over the years into its current form and mission, according Dr. Christopher Long, Chief Operations Officer of the organization.
“In addition to housing, there was a real interest in building a continuum of support for the differently-abled so that they could be as self-sufficient as possible…housing just isn’t enough,” he said. “We established vocational and other programs, which give our participants the right training and support…this includes mental health support and other services that one would need in order to be as happy as possible and live a fulfilled life, and we are just privileged to help people achieve their maximum potential.”
Long, COO of FREE for the past five years, has worked in health and human services his entire life. He noted that while many of FREE’s endevors are geared towards adults, they actually cater to all age groups, going so far as to refer to themselves as a “birth to end of life” service. Their varied programs encompass all levels of education through several locations throughout Long Island, from pre-school, elementary, high school and beyond. “Participants” of all types are welcomed to attend, and needed services can be brought to those who aren’t able to travel.
Employment is a vital aspect of FREE’s continued focus, Long said. To that end they provide concentrated support to their participants so that they can remain in competitive work situations.
“We don’t want them to just be able to harness jobs temporarily; we want them to be in sustainable employment,” he said. “That’s a lot easier said than done, so we have to intensify the training and build the support necessary on the job to ensure that people can remain as successful as possible.”
FREE has even begun developing its own forms of employment for participants, such as jobs at their in-house café and custodial department located at their Old Bethpage headquarters, a car wash located at their Islandia branch and an organic farm in Brentwood.
Amy Grosshandler of Queens is a staff member in Terry’s Place PROS (Personalized Recovery Oriented Services), which is a program within FREE that helps individuals with mental issues overcome anxiety, depression, and other serious issues so that they may go on to achieve their goals in life.
A great deal of the Terry’s Place PROS program is centered around Terry’s Café, an in-house lunch room where participants and staff work together to make breakfast and lunch daily for the facility. Working together in such an environment often helps to bring out the best in everyone involved, Grosshandler said.
“We teach them how to live independently, have better relationships and be more integrated within their own community,” she said. “The Café really helps with a lot of skill-building and helps people to work through their anxiety in a more comforting way, remain focused and complete their tasks. The support they receive here can help them transition from volunteering into a paid position in the café, which a lot of our participants have been able to do.”
Andy Verity of Baldwin, 27, has been a participant at FREE since 2009. He was very candid about the issues he’s been dealing with over the years and, more importantly, how his association with FREE has been instrumental in helping him lead a far more normal, productive life.
“I was having a lot of psychiatric problems and hospitalizations, and the psychiatrist I was seeing at the time thought attending a Day Program would be beneficial for me, and it is,” he said. “I’m better able to manage my anxiety thanks to the staff here, and my new psychiatrist has me on the right meds so that I’m stable and can function during the day.”
Verity has progressed to the point that he holds several jobs at FREE’s Old Bethpage facility. One, manning the cash register at Terry’s Café, is a volunteer position, but he was also recently hired as desk help as well, which is a paid, part-time job.
“I was volunteering at the desk, helping out, which I like, and after a few months when they saw how professional I was they offered me a paid position, which is nice,” he said.
Giving participants creative expression via the arts is another vital aspect of FREE. Smithtown resident Christine Scarpinato, Assistant Director of the Theater and Day Habilitation Program, helps to head up teaches skills and draw out the talents and passions of the individuals under her care.
“In the years that I’ve been here, we really see a lot of people who come here and they don’t really have much of a social life or know how to communicate,” she said. “But once they come here and see the opportunities here and all the people that are around…that really gives them a chance to open up, get to know people, and become their own person.”
Participants can choose from a variety of different classes to help them develop into well-rounded adults, including music, dancing, art, theater, history, current events, working on-site jobs and more. Working hand-in-hand with the disabled in this capacity, and helping them get on the right track with their lives, is a very fulfilling experience, Scarpinato said.
Katie McGuire, 22, of Massapequa Park has been attending FREE as a participant for the last two years, and in that time has racked up an impressive array of achievements, including starring in a production of Shrek the Musical, working for Massapequa business MapToons, and even selling one of the paintings that she created during her Art Therapy class.
“We had an exhibition at a winery, and someone bought a painting I made of a fossil…it was really cool,” she said. “I like coming to FREE a lot because it’s a lot like high school, but it’s more…you can get a job and work through them. But I don’t want to get a job yet…I like coming here too much, and a job would take away from my time here.”
FREE currently supports 4,000 people per year in a wide range of different services; their scope extends as far west as New York City, and as far east as the north and south forks of Long Island. They work closely with insurance companies and the government; Long said that most of their reimbursement comes from Medicaid and Medicare, thus making FREE readily accessible even to those in financial need.
To find out more about FREE and the services they offer visit their website at www.familyres.org.