By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — TOWN OF TONAWANDA — A local organization celebrated the opening of a town respite home Tuesday morning that will serve as an overnight and after-school care center for developmentally disabled children.
“What this home will do in the future is help those who need it,” Mark R. Foley, of Community Services for the Developmentally Disabled, said during the ribbon cutting of the center. “As we know, this is one of the few respite homes in Western New York.”
Community Services purchased the home last year — thanks to a $200,000 donation provided by the late Mildred M. Seegler, who was a special education teacher and donated her estate to four different charities. With numerous other donations in hand, the organization began renovating the home in the fall.
The home, located at 52 Dixon Drive, now has four large bedrooms, one of which is wheelchair-accessible. Children ages 5 to 18 will be able to stay at the home once the overnight program begins later this month. And next week, older individuals, ages 17 to 21, will begin making use of the home during an after-school program.
“They’ll be learning things you don’t learn in school — like how to prepare for an interview, and how to do laundry,” Kari Heigl, of Community Services, said. “It will help them transition into adulthood.”
The home is one of a handful in Western New York, and will be the closest respite center to the City of Buffalo, which the organization hopes to serve.
“This one is so much closer, and will help families who can’t make the drive way out to the others homes, which are either way north or way south,” Foley said.
Heigl, who spearheaded the project, said the other homes have wait lists of up to four years — making it hard on families who may need a break from 24/7 care of a disabled child.
But despite the celebratory mood Tuesday, the project didn’t come without controversy. In the fall, after the organization purchased the home and announced their plans, a group of town residents who live near the home publicly objected to the plans for the home.
Residents spoke out against the project at town board meetings and signed a petition against the proposals. They argued the home would cause more traffic in the neighborhood, and that the home violated zoning codes.
Although officials attempted to address the group’s concerns, board members and Town Attorney John Flynn said both the codes and state law allowed for the purchase and use of the home.
But months later, some residents are still concerned.
“We are worried because of the congestion,” Dorothy Merzacco, of Dixon Drive said. “This is a real residential neighborhood, very quiet ... we figure it was going to become noisy, with more traffic. And I live in the second home from that location.”
But Heigl said many other neighbors have reached out to her to show their support for the project.
“We’ve had an outpouring of support, with neighbors saying they are for it — that they have children of their own with disabilities,” Heigl said. “I chalk the worries up to concerns about the unknown.” Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150