Luckier than many, but an uncertain future

Paul Marks

After arriving home from his day program, Robert Embardo enjoys playing games on his computer or on his mother Peg’s iPad.

Robert Embardo is a 29-year-old guy in a Red Sox cap who weighs upwards of 300 pounds. Approaching with a slightly unsteady gait, he greets visitors with a left-handed handshake and a nod. But he doesn’t say much, even to his mother. The word he uses – the only word – is “key.”

That’s because Robert, who has autism, knows that unlocking the closet where the household food is kept gets him what he wants when he arrives home from his daily visit to Resources for Human Development in Wallingford. When he tears into a loaf of Italian bread, it doesn’t last long.

“He’d eat it all if I didn’t stop him,” his mom, Peg Embardo, explains. She works a part-time job as a church secretary, but her life, the routine of every day, involves managing Robert’s needs. It’s something that was easier to do when her husband was alive, she said, but now it’s mother and son and a life that relies heavily on state-sponsored social services.

A four-part series.

Resources for Human Development in Wallingford provides residential living arrangements, day programs and individual services to people with developmental disabilities. It’s part of a Philadelphia-based nonprofit agency that supports more than 160 human service programs, serving tens of thousands of people across the country.

For Robert, that means four days a week of art and music and other activities, but he is not enrolled in vocational skill development or job-readiness. “The working world requires a greater level of skill than he can sustain,” his mother said.

“He needs to be in a setting where he’s doing something more than playing on his computer and asking for food,” she said, and the day program offers that. “He doesn’t really get enough stimulation in a one-parent home.”

After the day program ends, Robert gets a ride home and a few additional hours of supervision from an aide named Malcolm. It’s been part of his routine for years now, and the two have become friends. Sometimes they stop at a local park, walk on the trails there, shoot some basketball or visit Robert’s uncle, who lives nearby. Embardo is grateful for the support, which allows her to hold a steady job.

Paul Marks

Robert has become fast friends with Malcolm, who takes him on recreational outings after his day program ends, then delivers him home.

One of Robert’s regular chores is taking the trash cans to the street and back, but even that demands supervision. His mother said she gasped one day when the wind had blown a can lid across the street. Robert stepped out to retrieve it just as a speeding car whisked by.

“He has the judgment of a toddler when it comes to certain things,” she said.

Embardo said she is luckier than many families whose lives were upended last year by cuts made in Connecticut’s budget for contracted social services. The Berlin Congregational Church, where she works, was understanding about accommodating two “furlough days” when Robert’s day program was closed temporarily.

Embardo, who has served on the Connecticut Council on Developmental Disabilities and now serves on the board of the MidState ARC in Middletown, said during last year’s disruption hundreds of families saw their developmentally disabled children lose ground in the socialization they receive. Through age 21, the law requires public schools to provide appropriate educational services to such students, but after that families may have to scramble.

“I make it through the day by not worrying about things,” Embardo said with a shrug, “but I fully see additional cuts [in state funding] coming down the road.”

For now, she and Robert live comfortably at their modest house on South Orchard Street in Wallingford. This summer he’ll get to stay overnight at a group home a few days under a “respite” program. But looking to the uncertain future is hard for Embardo, who is 64. She is not seeking to get Robert into a group home just yet, but knows the day will come when that is necessary.

“If I were to die tomorrow, he’d at least fit into a group home situation as an emergency placement,” she said. “It would be a safe roof over his head, but beyond that it’s hard to know.”

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