I S.M.I.L.E. every time I think about this incredible organization…

My article appeared in the November 2017 issue of OUR TOWN Gwinnett on page 9. I am going to reprint it here and include the magazine link at the bottom. This organization is filling a need in our community like NO OTHER. Read the article, and maybe you’ll be inspired to offer assistance in the form of time or money to these great people. Here is the article:

S.M.I.L.E. provides a community of care for developmentally disabled adults

By Heidi Campbell

Lawrenceville has a host of non-profits doing great things for the local community, and one of those programs is an organization called SMILE, which stands for St. Mary’s Independent Living Extensions. Their website say they are a “…nonprofit organization of trained caregivers who work around-the-clock to enrich the lives of adults with developmental disabilities by maximizing independence, breaking down barriers and advocating for greater community access.”

Paul Pieper and the late Nancy Bernard co-founded the Catholic organization in 2007, and they welcome people from all faiths. “This whole thing has been a miracle,” says Pieper. “It has allowed us get our clients out in the community. In the past, these disabled adults were often institutionalized, and that is certainly not what is best for them. People want to be with other people, and it is such a blessing that we can provide this kind of care.”

The 24-hour care program, accredited through CARF, provides daytime care as well as private, in-home care to adults with developmental disabilities.  SMILE has services to assist parents with the home care of their disabled adult children, and they also help place developmentally disabled adults in supportive, private homes with other disabled adults. Often times, if parents pass away, their disabled adult children have limited care options. Through SMILE’s programs, these families can find safe, nurturing living arrangements for these disabled adults who have lost their parents.  Together with three or four roommates, these adults are cared for by trained caretakers during the hours they are not attending the day program. “They get to live where they want to live, which is so nice for them. They get a variety of care, between the day program staff, the house managers, and the night shift staff,” explains Pieper, “but they also get the comfort and peace of being in their own home, receiving compassionate care.”

The day program, which recently added transportation to and from the clients’ houses, takes place at St. Marguerite’s Catholic Church. Bill Marten, a retired Deacon from St. John Neumann Catholic Church, who is now the organization’s Program Director, says, “The classrooms in the church aren’t used during the weekdays, so we are able to rent out those rooms Monday through Friday from 9-3pm. The space is perfect for our needs.”

The day program is designed to focus on life skills and social skills while promoting independence. With a trained caregiver for every six adults, the program is able to meet the individual needs of the participants. “The volunteering component of the program is definitely everyone’s favorite,” shares Antwanette Suggs, the Director of the Day Program. “They all love to work. We do a lot of work with the Lilburn Co-op. They put clothes on hangers and organize the food. They love it, and we hold ceremonies for them. When they’ve put in one hundred hours, their name goes on a plaque.”

One of SMILE’s current clients is an autistic woman named Betsy, whose life has been made into a movie called Disabled But Able To Rock. She and her brother were able to join the SMILE program after their mother passed away. “Betsy is actually one of the founders of Dragon Con,” shares Pieper. “She still performs in it every year. She’s the little lady with the cape that goes by ‘Dangerous Woman’. She writes music and performs concerts. Betsy is just tremendous. She is one of our most inspiring clients. We are so blessed to have her!”

While the program has grown, and moved from its small Lilburn center to a larger Lawrenceville location, it still cannot meet the demand for new clients. With a tremendous waiting list, the SMILE organization continues to work hard to secure funding to help more and more adults with disabilities. The care is expensive, and Medicare waivers do not cover all of the expenses of the program. “We need additional funding to sustain the system for those the adults living in our homes,” Pieper explains. “Many of these adults only have their social security, and some cannot afford the payments for their rent. This program is so important. These people are human beings who deserve the opportunity to be with other human beings.”

The SMILE organization welcomes monetary donations of any amount.  For the past seven years, they’ve teamed up with St. John Neumann Catholic Church to raise money with their 5K & One Mile Fun Run. The race has gotten larger each year, with over 400 people racing in this past April’s event.  “One man approached me after the race with tears in his eyes,” recalls Pieper, “and he said that he runs this race for his brother who is developmentally delayed. He said that day was his birthday so they all came to run.”

Aside from the need for donations, the non-profit group also welcomes background-checked volunteers who are willing to help with office work, house cleaning, cooking, or art activities. “We are an agency with a conscience,” shares Pieper. “We work very hard to be a family for our folks. We do our best to create an environment that is person-centered and meets the individual hopes and dreams of our clients through specialized care.”

If you would like to donate or volunteer to help SMILE, please visit http://www.smile4.info/home or call (770) 279-5115 for more information.



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