The Mission of Next Step Berks:
To create supportive housing to foster inclusive neighborhoods in Berks County that allow adults with intellectual disabilities and senior citizens to achieve more together.
Across America, hundreds of thousands of aging parents are caring for adult children who are unable to live on their own due to intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), including autism.
Many individuals with I/DD and autism spectrum disorders face severe challenges accessing support services and finding jobs. There also is a shortage of appropriate housing, including in Berks County.
Nancy Boyer and Wendy Bonn, two mothers of adult children with autism who have been close friend since their children were very young, have been grappling with these issues for years, wondering what would happen to their children if they were no longer able to care for them. They decided to act.
Boyer, with help from Bonn, founded Next Step Berks, a nonprofit 501C3 that seeks to create an intentional community providing housing and supportive services for senior citizens and adults with I/DD.
“The idea is to create a true community where people with I/DD and seniors can benefit from provided supports and from each other,” said Boyer, founder and president.
Bonn serves as treasurer of Next Step Berks and is a board member.
What the Intentional Community Model Looks Like
Using a community model provided by Three Oaks, a Michigan-based company that designs and builds inclusive neighborhoods, their site plans call for a community that is privately funded, with individuals or families purchasing homes intended for those with I/DD and 55-and-over residents.
The plan also includes green space for recreation and gardens, a store, a greenhouse and a community center.
The intentional community is intended to provide safe, supportive living space for I/DD residents, and manageable, smart housing for other residents who choose to buy homes in the community.
“We know this model works because it’s been used with success in other areas,” Boyer explained. “Research has shown that there’s a unique connection between senior citizens and adults with intellectual disability when it comes to housing needs.”
An advantage is because the homes are privately owned, residents can’t be involuntarily displaced. Homeownership provides peace of mind and encourages independence, Boyer noted, creating a stable, reliable living environment.
It also enables adults with I/DD to enjoy one another’s company and experience a vibrant social life.
“We just want to know that our children will be safe and happy,” Bonn said. “As much as we love them and want to care for them, we also want them to have an adult life with people their own age.”
Goals of Next Step Berks
Boyer, an elementary school teacher in the Wyomissing School District, and Bonn, who is retired from a career in accounting and finance, have been working tirelessly to move this project forward. Their concern, of course, is that they will become unable with age to provide the care their children need, and they’re anxious to create a chance for their safe and fulfilling future.
Their goal at this point is to connect with other parents of adult children with I/DD and autism, and to help educate the general community about the needs and concerns of this population. They are hoping someone who owns suitable land might hear about the project and be willing to sell to them.
Research has shown that 73 percent of individuals with I/DD live with a family caregiver, and that 29 percent live with a caregiver who is 60 or older. In addition to facing housing shortages, adults with I/DD and autism often have trouble finding jobs and supportive services.
Next Step Berks Board Members and Consultants
Next Step Berks board members are Boyer; Bonn; Tom McKeon, former executive director of the Berk County Industrial Development Authority, who also serves as vice president; and Brenda Boyer, a principal in the Twin Valley School District, who also serves as secretary.
Also, Mark McGaffin, director of public relations for Goodwill Keystone Area, and Cory Trevena, senior director of Caron’s Education Department.
The nonprofit is consulting with Burkey Construction on possible locations for the community. Its advisory group is made up of Bradley Davis and Colin Macfarlane, legal advisors from Kozloff Stoudt Attorneys; Daniel Waszkiewicz, tax advisor from Herbein + Company, Inc., and Nick Matthews, digital media advisor.
“We are blessed to have supportive, caring people working with us,” Boyer said. “We are still in the early stages, but we’re confident we’ll continue moving forward.”
How You Can Help
Anyone interested in learning more about Next Step Berks and its planned living community can get information and contact Boyer through the group’s website at nextstepberks.org.
The organization is looking to connect with families of adults with I/DD, including autism, both about housing and other issues facing this population.
“It really does take a village,” Bonn said. “We all do better when we connect and support one another.”
Next Step Berks leadership noted that finding land suitable for an intentional community will be a challenge, but they’re hoping that someone may know of available space and inform them about it.
Meet the President and Treasurer of Next Step Berks
You can watch an interview with Nancy Boyer and Wendy Bonn and learn more about Next Step Berks and their work on the BCTV show “Centering on Peace.” The show will premier on BCTV and stream online at www.bctv.org Tuesday from 9 to 10 p.m., after which it will be available online for viewing any time.