Inside a home on a quiet street in Mt. Lebanon, Mickey, David and Cary gather around a table, sharing a meal they made together. Mickey has been learning how to cook and helped Cary prepare the vegetables. David always pours the drinks. They talk about their food, the weather, their favorite TV crime shows. They laugh and make plans for an upcoming party. They know each other well after all the hours they’ve spent together in this house, weathering the pandemic over the last three years.
They are three men over 50. Two of them have Down syndrome. One of them, a former lawyer, now works as a direct support professional, employed by the Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh.
Their likenesses are greater than their differences, and on nights like this, it shows.
Cary reflected on why he chooses to work as a direct support professional.
“In the morning when I wake up, I wake up with a smile on my face, and at night when I go to sleep, I go to sleep with a smile on my face,” he said. “To me, direct support professional means being of service to another human being.”
The Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh was founded more than 30 years ago by Ken and Lorraine Wagner. At that time, Ken and Lorraine had raised four children, including a daughter with a developmental disability. They decided to leave their careers and former home to start something new. They envisioned a place where people with and without disabilities could share their lives and build community together.
Ken and Lorraine opened the first Emmaus home in Pittsburgh’s South Side in 1994, welcoming Diane and Debbie, two unrelated women with intellectual disabilities. The four of them lived together family-style, steeped in the happenings of everyday life.
Diane and Debbie walked to their jobs at Goodwill every morning. Ken and Lorraine supported them in making breakfast and doing laundry. They went to the church next door on Sundays and joined the Special Olympic track and swim teams. The four of them broke bread together at the dinner table every night, celebrating birthdays and holidays, and sometimes, on the hard days, mourning losses together.
As the community grew and welcomed more direct support professionals, Lorraine and Ken eventually moved out of the home, and two additional women with intellectual disabilities moved in. Debbie passed away in 2021 after living with Diane for 27 years.
The Emmaus Community has continued to grow and thrive. Now, in 2023, Emmaus supports 14 community-based homes for people with intellectual disabilities, and also serves individuals who live with family or independently but are seeking support and a greater sense of community in their lives.
Across the board, research shows that people with intellectual disabilities face much higher levels of isolation and loneliness than the general population. Recognizing this, the Emmaus model is built upon community and inclusion. The Emmaus philosophy recognizes that all people have gifts to share as well as struggles and areas where they need support. The emphasis is on building meaningful relationships between people.
The Emmaus definition of community extends beyond its residents and staff to include the many family members, volunteers, friends and supporters who believe in the mission. Emmaus brings people together throughout the year for a variety of events and looks forward to holding its first in-person gala in three years — the Emmaus Roarin’ 20s Gala — on April 22 at the The Westin Pittsburgh on Penn Avenue.
“Emmaus events help us raise the funds needed to support our mission and expand our programming, but more importantly, they’re an opportunity to get to know the people who make up our community and find out how to be a part of it,” said Emmaus CEO Karen Jacobsen. “Come meet our residents on the dance floor. You might decide to join our team!”
When Emmaus residents and program participants were asked what they love about life at Emmaus, their answers ran the gamut, but perhaps the most poignant response came from Carl, who said without pause: “At Emmaus, they treat me like a human being.”
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