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Where the heart is
Forrest Richter, Dick Whaley and Rich Potter, from left, have been friends and housemates for almost 30 years at their home on East Central Avenue in Missoula. For these men, home is bigger than just their house. It's the whole community.
Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

After living together for decades, men with developmental disabilities face losing their home

For Rich Potter, home is the place where you can put ketchup and ranch dressing on your macaroni and cheese, just the way you like it, and nobody at the table even blinks. At home, everybody knows you're a great bowler; they ask you how many strikes you got when you get home on your bowling day.

For Forrest Richter, home is where everybody knows you ride the fastest bikes in town. It's where everybody at dinner will say a prayer, in with the grace, for your grumpy Forrest mood to pass. And they know how to get you up on the pokiest day with the promise of coffee.

For Dick Whaley, home is where somebody remembers he wants new sandals, where everybody asks about his day and where the stacked-up photo albums in the living room hold pictures of him as a long-haired youth. Home is where he knows everybody. And home is where Rich is. The two men, now 46 and 47, have been best friends since they were tots of 6 and 7.

Potter and Richter and Whaley have lived together for nearly 30 years at their home at 607 E. Central Ave. in Missoula. They have developmental disabilities. But most people who know them would hardly say that's the most important thing about them.

Most people who know them also don't know that the men are in danger of losing their home at the end of May.

For Billy Johnson, Central Street Home has been his home just a year and a half. But he knew Dick and Rich and Forrest for 25 years from their jobs at Opportunity Resources before he moved in, two days after his mother fell and broke her hip. Billy, who has developmental disabilities too, is 57 and had lived with his mother all his life.

She fell on Dec. 10, and Billy's brother, Ron, and his wife, Margaret, took him there on the 12th, Margaret remembers.

"We walked in, and Forrest came over, and he put his arm around him and said, 'We'll take care of him,' " she said. " 'I'll see that he's OK.' And Bill has never looked back."

For these men, home is bigger than just their house. It's the whole community. Potter and Whaley have season tickets to Grizzly football and basketball games, where they're widely known, as well as Lady Griz basketball and Osprey baseball. Richter rides his bikes all over town, stopping for air at Gary's Conoco - "It's the best air," he says - and for coffee with everybody he knows.

"Everybody knows him in Missoula as 'friend,' " said Rich Lloyd, operations manager for Opportunity Resources' wood plant where Richter worked for him for 23 years. "He calls everybody 'friend,' and he's everybody's friend."

The men go to the YMCA three days a week, they bowl on Tuesdays, they go to church every week at Christ the King, and Johnson also still goes to the Christian Science church he grew up with. Thursdays after work, Potter and Whaley have art class. They go on picnics and trips. They dress up for Halloween and hunt eggs on Easter. They go Christmas caroling in the neighborhood. They raise a garden every year. When their neighbor Walt was in the hospital, they shoveled his sidewalks; he baked them brownies to pay them back. They ask people over for dinner - even if you're a volunteer laying carpet, you're not leaving at dinnertime without eating.

"Whenever you go anywhere, like when we take them to the fair, so many people come up and say hi to them," said house manager Rob Romig. "It's almost scary. They just know everybody."

Johnson lost 50 pounds when he moved in.

"He's got more activities going than you or I do," said his brother. "They're so busy. He just loves that, to get out and about."

Measured by stability and community-building, the men are the ideal citizens, says the Rev. Tom King, who's board chairman of Central Street Home.

"They've lived in one place, had the same jobs, they've built up relationships in the neighborhood, at church," he said. "They're rabid Griz fans. If we wanted to describe the ideal Missoula citizen, that would be these men."

The men live in a unique arrangement in which the idea of "family home" is central, not "mini-institution." Their lives and the house are managed with a light hand by a house manager and two caregivers. They are not shift workers who come and go like the traditional state model group home. Those three people live there with the men, the part-time caregivers in apartments downstairs and the manager in a two-bedroom apartment and bath in the rambling old house.

"The idea is to create a community," said Tamara Kittelson-Aldred, a board member and neighbor who has known "the guys" for 20 years. "Our idea is you create more a sense of family and community when you all live together."

The house grew from an energetic, young church congregation in about 1975 at Community Covenant Church, now closed.

"The notion is our lives are poorer for not including people like this in our lives," said King, who was pastor of the church at the time. "By keeping them at a distance, we lose out on their gifts. And the church says this is the Gospel. We all have gifts and vulnerabilities. And this is what we do."

That unique notion of family is what has made Central Street successful. But today it is also what might bring its demise. By the end of May, its manager, Romig, and the two part-time caregivers, Kelly Keilman and Gina Pasini, are leaving the jobs. Knowing that Romig was committed to just one year as manager, the board has searched for a new one for a year. It has yielded no one. Just last week, a candidate for a part-time caregiver appeared. But the house can't run without a manager.

The board has had to consider closing the house.

"If we can't find anybody who's called to this life, we can't keep the home open," Kittelson-Aldred said.

"It would be terrible on so many fronts," she said. "They would be losing their home of 30 years."

Board member Mike Fredrickson, a former special education teacher and administrator with Missoula County Public Schools, was Potter's teacher for four years at Sentinel High School and basketball coach in Special Olympics. He understands the relationship among the men and can hardly bear the idea of what would happen should the home fold.

"They really are a family," he said. "It's not just a group home for guys with cognitive disabilities. We'd be splitting up a family."

Back in 1975, Community Covenant Church was a young and energetic church, King said. A couple from the congregation, Rich and Cheri Boggs, took over a state group home on Arrowhead Drive. The residents included Richter, Potter and Whaley, who had been together as children at what is now called the Montana Developmental Center at Boulder.

"Rich and Cheri took over there as a sort of ministry, a calling," King said. "But they felt bound by the rules of the state. So many goals: Rich will brush his teeth three times a day and document that. They started to wonder is there a way to do something family-related, not a mini-institution?"

A real estate agent helped the congregation find the house, and they bought it for $1 down and help from the family of one of the future residents. Rich and Dick and Forrest moved in, along with two others. The Boggses stayed there five years with the five men.

"The house was very much a part of the church then," King said. "We'd have big dinners here. It wasn't just 'ministering to,' it was 'life with.' "

"They brought a wonderful presence to our little church of 100 people," King said. "Through them we got to know other people with developmental disabilities."

King and his wife and young children spent five years there, too.

"These three men have been the constant," he said. "This is really their home."

In 1993, King stepped down as pastor, the congregation shrank and it was clear the church would close. A group of people who wanted to secure Central Street's future set the house up as an independent nonprofit run by a board. A former church member took over as manager for seven years. During most of that time, the three men were the sole residents.

Two or three years ago, new state regulations and the years of lack of the church's support brought financial crisis. The board had one depressing meeting after another, King said. Tamara Kittelson-Aldred stepped forward.

She is a former church member and a neighbor on Central Street. She also had a daughter with developmental disabilities and works in the field.

"She just said, 'We can't let this happen,' " King said. "She's been such an advocate."

"Our kids have grown up with the guys," Kittelson-Aldred said. "They've been part of our neighborhood. Christmas caroling parties."

The Kittelson-Aldreds had found a new religious home at Christ the King Church. Tamara approached her church about adopting Central Street in some way, and the congregation agreed. The church also committed some money for a six-month period, and four of its members became new board members. The regional body of the Evangelical Covenant Church paid off the mortgage for the house and now owns it without charging rent.

"They said, 'We support this ministry, even though there's not a local Covenant church anymore," King said. "The most important thing is that this house survives for these men."

Around that time, too, the board changed the house's licensing with the state from a group home to an adult foster home, which brought streamlined rules and less paperwork.

The house gets by financially on the men's payments and money from a group of regular contributors, the Friends of Central Street Home. It stays in the black - just by a little bit, but in the black.

And it has had a renaissance of activity now that a church congregation is connected with it - potlucks, barbecues, work days.

"The men come to church, and they just bring a sense of joy to the church," said the Rev. Jim Hogan, who leads Christ the King. "People just smile."

"Richard comes in wearing his Special Olympics medals, and he's so proud. It's like family congratulating him."

The men are naturals, said King.

"The men have created the community," he said. "At church, where they went as strangers after the Covenant Church closed, and around the neighborhood."

King sees the house as the embodiment of St. Francis' admonition, "Now go out and preach the Gospel, and do it without words."

"Think if the faith community did that," he said. "Instead of preaching with words, give their lives to others and include others in their lives."

The last two management teams have come from the congregation.

But now, a year of advertising and searching has brought no response. Kittelson-Aldred, who with Fredrickson forms the search committee, said they have advertised in the Missoulian and the Independent and on the Internet, put notices in church bulletins, posted notices at the University of Montana and at disability service agencies, circulated the openings by statewide e-mail, even contacted former Jesuit volunteers.

"A year ago, we had calls and interest," Kittelson-Aldred said. "This year, we haven't had anything."

The board is proud that it has been able to add health insurance to the manager's job, which also pays $750 a month along with the two-bedroom apartment and board. The two caregiver jobs are part-time and pay room and board only.

"We need people," she said. "And they have to be the right kind of people. It can't just be people who want to get a roof over their heads and have a job. It has to be an avocation, a ministry. A person who wants to do this."

If Central Street Home closes, it's a certainty the men would be split up, and they would probably be sent to different towns for housing. Hundreds of people are on waiting lists for supervised living, said Pete Hathaway, director of vocational services at Opportunity Resources. His agency has about a dozen clients who are on waiting lists while their aging parents are getting older. The men could be sent to Plentywood. Or Browning.

"People wait a long, long time for services," he said. "There just aren't services. People wait for years to get to Missoula. … They can only get services when a vacancy occurs."

Hathaway knows the four men from their jobs at Opportunity.

"They're as much a family as any other family in Missoula," he said.

There will be no new residential services after this Legislative session, said Ted Spas, regional manager of the state's developmental disabilities program for Region 5. Every living situation in Missoula has a waiting list, he said. There is no opening in the seven counties of Region 5: Missoula, Ravalli, Mineral, Lake, Sanders, Flathead and Lincoln.

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One day last week, the openings in the state were a single place each in Butte, Red Lodge, Billings and Glasgow and two in Helena.

"We'd like to keep them here, but I don't know that we could," he said. "We probably couldn't. They would be split up, I'm sure. At least on a temporary basis, probably permanently."

Should the house close, the men would be on an in-crisis list with other people in crisis, Spas said.

"Then we would scramble and see what we could put together on a temporary basis," he said. "We're charged with deciding who is in the most need, which is very tough."

Sometimes, in crises, he and his staff look at personal care homes or at doubling people up on cots in a group home temporarily.

"But we can't do that on a permanent basis because we don't have the money," he said.

As board members fret and search, life goes on at Central Street as it has for almost 30 years. Last week started with a cookout in Pattee Canyon on Monday night.

"Mmmmmm, hot dogs!" said Whaley when he got home.

Tuesday was bowling night, and the men looked forward to going to the MCT production of "The Pirates of Penzance," in which Johnson's sister-in-law Margaret has a part, on Wednesday night.

Tuesday at dinner, Forrest was grumpy, but Forrest is often grumpy and easily joked out of it. He's 65, Rich reminds him, and retired.

"Forrest is too old to bowl," he confided.

Forrest will tell you he just doesn't like it.

"They go in the gutter if you don't watch 'em," he says.

The pile of well-used photo albums in their living room show their years together. Rich on a birthday, so young he's almost unrecognizable. Camping trips. Christmas. Standing on the front lawn in Halloween costumes. Forrest with a snowblower in deep snow on the sidewalk, peeking out from under the hood of a huge fur-trimmed parka. The men riding horses and winning ribbons in the Special Olympics.

The greeter in their front yard is the dog Ed, who's 11, black with white paws and chest.

"It's Kelly's dog," Richter explains. "She shares him with us. She's nice enough to do that."

At dinner, everybody helps a little with cooking and table-setting. Johnson likes to ring the dinner bell, a bone-rattling iron triangle that could call ranch hands in from the pastures. The men hold hands and sing grace and go around the table telling what they're thankful for before they eat. Usually, "work at the wood shop" is high, as is bowling.

After dinner, they're a finely tuned machine, busing the table, wiping it, loading the dishwasher, taking out the trash.

They know that Rob and Kelly and Gina are leaving. But they don't know their home is in danger.

Kelly Keilman has wrestled to come to terms with leaving Central Street Home, which is best for her. Last year, she was the manager. This year, she has been a part-time caregiver because she went to graduate school in social work. It's too much, and she has to concentrate on her studies. She has been close to the men; Rich, who has no biological family, went home with her to her own extended family in Helena one Thanksgiving. He fit in perfectly, she said, a football fan like the rest of them.

"They touch so many people," she said. "I will not be the same, ever again. And I will never look at people with disabilities the same again because I've gotten to know them as people."

Keilman has even gotten past the men putting ketchup on the Thai dish she made. They fell all over themselves telling her how good it was when they perceived it somehow hurt her feelings.

Board member Mike Fredrickson loves to have them over for dinner.

"Preparing meals for them is just a joy," he said. "You really can't do anything wrong. Their enthusiasm is energetic."

Fredrickson likes to think the applicant they don't know yet is right around the corner. Tomorrow.

"You keep thinking someone's going to step up, and we'll say, 'That's the person,' " he said.

"There are four beautiful men there."

When the Kittelson-Aldreds' daughter Eleanore died two years ago, the men surprised the family by singing "You Are My Sunshine" at her funeral.

Kittelson-Aldred will do everything she can to keep them in their home, she said. So will the rest of the board, the church, the Friends, the neighbors.

"Can you imagine losing your home and your family and your community and your church, everything, and being sent somewhere where you don't know anybody?" she said. "It's heart-breaking."

Reporter Ginny Merriam can be reached at 523-5251 or by e-mail at

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