By Marnie Kaller
Morristown and its neighboring towns and areas have much to recommend them – historical sites that remind us of the founding of our country, good schools and safe streets so that our children can learn and play in peace, open space for recreation and reflection, town centers that provide residents and visitors with many amenities, and much more. We would be concerned if any of those indicators of the quality of life would be threatened.
In addition, we are also home to a remarkable example of sensitive and humane care for those with developmental disabilities. On a shady street near the center of Morristown, in a renovated home that fits perfectly into the community, a non-profit residential place called Cohome provides family-style living for six individuals with varying degrees of developmental disabilities and three residential advisors.
Cohome was founded by Nathaniel Diskint, who left a career in the field of innovative medical devices, to create a living option for his brother who has Down Syndrome. Others, like Nate’s brother, have the ability to live independently, function in the workplace and benefit from a co-living environment. Cohome does not provide medical care to its residents who are completely capable of performing all basic life functions.
Nate was recently granted the Innovation Leadership Award by the Supportive Housing Association of New Jersey. The SHA says:
This award recognizes the innovative and transformational efforts of an agency or individual that has demonstrated leadership in facilitating supportive housing projects in the State. This year we honor you (Nathaniel Diskint) as one who has had an extraordinary impact in improving the lives of people with special needs through housing and services. We could not think of a more worthy person to receive this award.
Cohome is a successful example of an important growing trend in our nation – a dignified living option for those who are capable of sharing responsibilities of their home, who share costs, who make decisions together, who plan and prepare a family dinner together, and who take part in bi-weekly social activities with friends from the community.
As an example, for several months the residents of Cohome have helped volunteers from the Presbyterian Church in Morristown prepare breakfast bags for the guests at nourish.NJ. A requirement of Cohome is that each individual has at least 20 hours per week of meaningful engagement with the community.
Cohome is the logical extension of the mainstreaming of individuals in school environments as called for by the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Cohome residents attended schools with non-disabled students, although they also benefited from special support services as needed. They avoided the pain of isolation or even cruel warehousing as had often been the case before the IDEA went into effect. It would be a great disservice to deny these valuable citizens an inclusive life in a community.
Many of us from the neighboring churches and the community have had the privilege of getting to know the founder, the staff, and the resident advisors who live there. Most importantly, we love knowing and working with the residents with developmental disabilities who have chosen to live at Cohome.
We have been invited to share meals with them and join them during their Social Club times. They are our neighbors and an important part of our overall community. We are amazed by the attractive renovations to a house that had stood vacant and in disrepair for a decade. If you did not see the Cohome banner, you would be hard-pressed to identify which home in the area was Cohome and which was just another large and elegant structure.
Unfortunately, because as people often say, “no good deed goes unpunished,” a small and vocal group of neighbors has pressured town officials to raise technical objections to Cohome’s existence. In essence, they are attempting to force Cohome out. This blatant NIMBY-ism, veiled in bureaucratic jargon, is a direct assault on the existence of Cohome. Our local elected officials should proudly stand up for Cohome, not accommodate a few very wealthy neighbors. Sadly, the officials seem intimidated by this vocal faction.
WE are not intimidated. We are appalled by this pattern and call on all decent area residents to support Cohome and its residents. We believe that Cohome, which is attracting national attention for the creativity and sensitivity its residential solution provides to those with developmental disabilities, should be celebrated and embraced by our community.
As with all the other assets we mentioned at the start of this piece, Cohome should be proudly and loudly included, not harassed and pressured to move. We should consider it a privilege to be able to claim that our community is the place where Cohome exists and does its remarkable, life-changing work.
Marnie Kaller is an NJT/MAT leader and an active member of The Presbyterian Church in Morristown.