Carter Bak makes an impressive Santa. Especially when he starts ripping off his fake white beard, pulling the pillow out from behind the silver-buckled big black belt and shouting “Ho, ho, ho.”
This is Bak’s first Christmas at Laguna Beach’s Glennwood House, a complex of apartments and community activity rooms for developmentally disabled residents aged 18 to mid-40’s. Last Friday, Bak and a few others presented “Silent Night,” replete with Santa, angels, three wise men, a living star and even a baby Jesus, played by a woman in a wheelchair, said Glennwood’s assistant executive director Sasha Mackey. Everyone had a solo and resident Amy Earlix told the story of Hanukah. Tonight, they’ll sing carols around the neighborhood and tomorrow night look at Christmas lights in town in a caravan of cars driven by parents.
Just 21, Bak has lived on his own before, in the dorms at Riverview School for developmentally disabled students in Cape Cod, Mass. As one of the leading men in Glennwood House’s drama club, Bak’s a guy who likes to take charge, says Mackey, and gets “redirected” so that others can step up to center stage, too.
Most of the 49 residents, who are high-functioning adults with conditions such as Down’s, Williams and Asperger’s syndromes, cerebral palsy and autism, are going home for Christmas. But before they do, they’ve been busy getting into the spirit.
Glennwood House’s full-time activity director Maggie Culp started offering holiday activities as soon as Thanksgiving was over, starting off with practicing Christmas carols for last Friday night’s concert. Culp said they’ve been nonstop ever since.
Upon meeting a visitor, Tina Cassani, 47, from Anaheim, openly shares that she has Williams syndrome and then proudly widens the door to her private room, pointing out the personal touches she has added. She then leads her guest upstairs to show off her handiwork in the craft room next to the home’s spacious living room. Cassani glued and glittered six flat wooden Christmas ornaments of various shapes and sizes, which were still drying on the shelf.
Baneh Shirazi, who’s living away from home for the first time in her 33 years, wears the shiny red-and-green beaded Christmas necklace she made with a Santa Claus bauble hanging from the middle of the strand. “It was quite a big change for her,” said her mother, Heshmat Shirazi, who owns a shop in downtown Laguna. “I’m not saying everything is perfect for her, no. But every time I talk with her, every time I see her, she’s engaging with other residents and she’s having fun and she’s not hiding herself in her room being upset.”
As with most of the residents, Bak, Shirazi and Cassani willingly take part in all the Christmas activities, making cards, decorating ornaments, creating oversized snowflakes and white paper-chains to look like snow that hang from the windows, walls and ceilings, and painting and coloring the holiday mural that Culp outlined. The mural will soon be displayed behind the dining room’s buffet, opposite the expansive ocean view, and where residents recently enjoyed the Christmas tamales they made themselves from scratch.
Glennwood House, purchased for $6.5 million, opened in August after another $1 million was spent complying with state licensing regulations and updating the facility. The 24-hour staff of 15 people includes full-time administrators, a two-person night team, a chef, activity coordinator, direct care and medical staff. Rent costs $1,900 a month for a shared room and $2,500 for a private room and includes Internet and cable television access, and three meals a day.
Stacey Enmeier, previously the assistant director, became executive director a month ago, succeeding Shauna Bogert. Enmeier’s career path was influenced by the health of her mother, who suffered from meningitis and neuropathy as Enmeier was growing up. “Being able to help her and go alongside her and learning those nurturing skills,” she said, “really trained me in how to be around this population because it’s a very specific population.”
Parents of each resident are interviewed before their child moves in so that the staff can assess preferences. “We know this person isn’t going to come to activities unless they’re asked,” Enmeier cites as an example. “They’re all catered to as an individual.”
As for expected budding romances, they’re all over the place, said Mackey. Mackey formerly ran a Temecula facility for teens involved in drugs, alcohol and gangs who had given up on having any quality of life. They didn’t believe in repercussions and they didn’t care, she said. Working with developmentally disabled adults, is “heaven.”
“They’re innocent, like children,” Mackey said. When couples stop “dating” each other, there’s a 30-day break before other romances are allowed to bloom, she said. When there is a romance, each other’s apartments are off limits.
“Not everyone can do this job, work in the DD field,” said Enmeier. “It takes a person who’s called and feels comfortable and has just a love for them.”
Tina Cassani, Santa (Carter Bak) and Stacey Enmeier.