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In Denton, a new way to build up those with developmental disabilities

Its mission rests within its name. Life Works Community, a Denton day-hab facility that works with mentally disabled adults, approaches its day-to-day duties in more of a family environment than a business.

Just off of University Drive, Life Works is a daytime habilitation center for the developmentally disabled that focuses on building skills and providing opportunities for clients to better integrate into the public.

"We've developed the program with the idea that stimulation and exposure to tasks and activities could be used beyond the facility help them interact in the community," said Randy Park, a former emergency room doctor and co-founder of Life Works Community with his wife, Patty. "Things from washing dishes to cooking to scanning items at the grocery store — the life, the work and the community all fit together to create a fulfilling [existence]."

Opening last September, the day-hab facility differs from its counterparts in that it is a nonprofit entity, run by the Siti and Jido Park Foundation, which Park and his wife — who he refers to as "the driving force behind the whole operation" — began after his retirement from practicing medicine.

Park's grandson Malcolm Carroll is a developmentally disabled young adult, and earlier in his life when they were looking for services for him to ensure he had all the opportunities available, they discovered many of the shortcomings that exist in community care for those with disabilities.

Malcolm Carroll practices piano at Life Works Community on Wednesday in Denton.DRC
Malcolm Carroll practices piano at Life Works Community on Wednesday in Denton.

It was when he and his wife met Cathy McGowan, Life Works' facility director, that the wheels began to turn on how they better provide services to those who need them. With decades of experience in special education, McGowan was the missing link in the creation of the Life Works Community undertaking.

"Patty had the vision, Cathy had the knowledge, and I had the background in health care," Park said. "Partnerships with those in the community and world-class volunteers have made Life Works what it is today."

Park explained that though other facilities often do the most they can, the immense amount of responsibilities and a model based on making money rather than providing proper care often keep others from doing the most good.

"It is because we are nonprofit that we can focus in on individual parts in the process and do them very well," he said.

The group takes frequent trips into town, setting up a booth at Denton Community Market, taking the A-train and doing other self-determined activities to drive home the importance of interaction within the community. The group is also actively involved in community service.

"Yesterday we went to the Children's Advocacy Center and delivered a whole bunch of products through the help of Rotary [Club] of Justin," said McGowan. "It means a lot for them to be able to give back, so that they aren't sitting in a room all day, and don't feel like a burden because they certainly aren't. They want to give back to their communities [as much as anyone else]."

McGowan said service is an important part of the philosophy at Life Works Community, also adding that helping those with disabilities find and retain employment is a key factor in ensuring they have a rewarding life beyond the facility.

"We are also an employment service provider through DARS," said McGowan. "We provide assistance for people with barriers to employment."

Texas Workforce Commission's Department of Assistive & Rehabilitative Services, or DARS, provides services to help individuals like those who frequent Life Works in finding and maintaining some form of employment, but the assistance ends 90 days after an individual has located a job.

"If they qualify for the assistance with Texas Workforce Commission, they can choose our facility as their service provider for skills training, and we are the only day-hab facility that does that," McGowan said. "We are also currently in the works of building a group home for respite [care]."

McGowan explained that over half of the people who frequent Life Works Community live with their parents, often making it difficult for guardians to find time to do things that are not as straightforward for those with disabilities. As the nonprofit nears the completion of its new young men's group home, which will have a full-time caretaker living there, officials are looking to future projects, such as a home for young women and a walking space near the locations, which are set to be built on the same cul-de-sac.

Taylor Kasper, who will begin graduate studies in occupational therapy at Texas Woman's University in the fall, is the caretaker who will live in the young men's group home. She began as a volunteer in October before switching to working part time, and she now works with the facility as a full-time staffer.

"[Life Works Community] differs from other facilities in that it genuinely is concerned about making the lives of those who come here better," she said. "It isn't a glorified day care for adults — it is a family."

Kasper said all the activities chosen by Life Works clients help them foster autonomy and ultimately live a better life.

"I think that the model of Life Works Community is how things will be done in the future," she said.

Nick Berend, a member of Life Works Community, said he enjoys his time there far more than his previous day-hab.

"In my old day-hab, I would sit in a room with a lot of people and watch TV until it was time to go home," he said. "Here I learn how to do stuff I couldn't do before. I can make eggs for breakfast now."

Vicki Garrison, the mother of another member of Life Works, said she is incredibly grateful and appreciates the center's family-like atmosphere.

"Every night I say a little prayer [for them] because this is exactly what we have been looking for," she said.

HARRISON LONG can be reached at 940-566-6897.

FEATURED IMAGE: A group from Life Works Community practice a variety of skills, such as sorting, folding and bagging for future potential job opportunities, on Wednesday, May 17, 2017, in Denton. Life Works Community is a day habilitation center that provides services to help integrate developmentally disabled people into the Denton community. Facility director Cathy McGowan says she wants each person to try a variety of skills to see what they like best. She also said it's important that they not only learn skills, but to enjoy what they're doing.
Tomas Gonzalez/DRC