Department for Persons with Disabilities (DPD) provides residential, vocational, spiritual, and social services to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Catholic Digest spoke with executive director Scott Milliken and development director Chris Brancato about their important work at DPD, which is the only Catholic Charities agency in the state of New Jersey.
WHO WE ARE: Department for Persons with Disabilities (DPD) is a Catholic Charities organization in the diocese of Patterson, New Jersey. We provide a very high level of care for adults with developmental disabilities and their families. We operate nine group homes, two supervised apartments, and one vocational day program. To live with us, a person has to be over the age of 21 and have a developmental disability.
OUR WORK: We have a program called “Saturdays at the Center” where people who live in the community, either with their parents or with other family members, can spend a few hours on a Saturday. We provide educational, recreational, and social opportunities. We also offer other activities such as Knights of Columbus, art classes, pet therapy, and cooking classes. In addition we have a Fight for the Right Community service group, which allows the people we serve to give back to the community. Our main goal is for our adults to become active, contributing, and valued members of the community and to participate in life with dignity and respect.
HOW WE STARTED: Father John Wehrlen started Department for Persons with Disabilities in 1965. As a young parish priest, he wanted to help a mother in his parish who had three young children, one with a developmental disability. In the 1960s there weren’t many services for people with disabilities. A parent’s options were either institutionalization or keeping children at home where they were sheltered, not even allowed to attend public school until 1973.
Father Wehrlen was devastated when this single mother, with no family and little support, took her own life and the lives of her children. From that day he made it his mission to help and provide services to other children with developmental disabilities and their families. He first started a daycare center for children with developmental disabilities as a way to provide children with educational and recreational opportunities and give parents time to rest, work, and complete daily errands. Eventually those kids grew up and needed a fulltime, year-round care, and DPD was started. We opened up our first residential program in 1971. We have the longest running group home in the state of New Jersey, called Murray House. We have grown from a volunteer organization to one of the largest Catholic Charities agencies in the country that provide these services.
A SUCCESS STORY: Walter was one of the first individuals we ever served. He grew up with his mother in Paterson, New Jersey, and became a shoeshine boy on the streets. When Walter’s mother passed away, he had no place to go, but Father Wehrlen was there to offer him a place to live at Murray House. Walter was quite a character. He didn’t say very much, and if you asked him a lot of questions, he would say, “None of your business.” That was one of his favorite phrases. Walter had an important job: checking the mail. He would check the mail five, 10, sometimes 20 times a day, usually not finding anything. When the mail was delivered, he was so happy to bring it back into the house, open it, or to give it to his housemates or the staff.
One hot summer day, Walter went out to check the mail and came back with a very special package in his hands: a newborn infant wrapped in an old army blanket, just a couple of hours old. Apparently someone who couldn’t take care of this baby left her in our mailbox. Perhaps this person knew we were a Catholic Charities organization and would take care of her. When the staff saw the baby, they cleaned her up and called the police, who took the baby away. Walter was angry that they took the baby away, and until the day he died, he said, “The police took my baby” (which was a long phrase for him to utter).
Walter died in the mid 1980s. In 1994 a young woman came to our offices looking for information about her biological parents. The only information she had was a newspaper clipping that said “Baby Found in Mailbox” with our information on it. She came to our office to tell us that she was that baby. She had been adopted into a good home, and was a pre-med student at an Ivy League school. Walter’s baby was going to be a doctor and save lives! Walter is an example of someone who wasn’t given much of a chance in life, yet made a real difference in the lives of others. There are many Walters in our organization!
HOW WE PROVIDE SPIRITUALLY: We have a large volunteer program called “People Need Friends” with more than 100 active volunteers, many of who hold Bible study classes in individual homes. We also have a CARE program (Catholic Adults Religious Education). We meet on the first Monday of the month at the local parish for some kind of service and a lesson.
For example, one of our longtime residents, Vincent, recently passed away, so the volunteers asked the residents to write down their thoughts on a piece of paper. They put the papers into a big bowl, everyone went outside, and the volunteers lit the papers on fire. They all watched the smoke, similar to incense, as their prayers went up to heaven. The lesson usually revolves around the faith or something in the news. After the lesson, they have a little snack and a social time. The meeting is open to people in our program but also people in the community.
HOW TO HELP: We are a nonprofit organization, and we really rely on donations to run our programs. In the state of New Jersey there are more than 8,000 people with development disabilities on a waiting list for services like ours. It is important for us to grow and expand in the future so there can be more community housing opportunities for people with developmental disabilities.
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, download the application on DPD.org or contact Sister Joan at (973) 406-1103 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To support the Department for Persons with Disabilities, please go to DPD.org or Facebook.com/dpdcc, or contact Chris Brancato, DPD’s development director, at (973) 406-1104.