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Omaha Magazine

Hopes Fulfilled: Sheltering Tree Provides Safe, Secure Housing

Dec 21, 2023 12:16PM ● By Kara Wesely

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Moving into a place you can call your own is a rite of passage for many adults. Some move to an apartment or dorm. Some look to renting or buying a home. Some go it alone, while others find roommates. This rite of passage brings a range of emotions. Feelings of pride and excitement. Perhaps a sense of being overwhelmed or on edge. Many may sense a feeling of accomplishment.

Now picture that same scenario with one significant difference: the adult who doesn’t get to decide. Rather, someone decides for them. That person may be told that their choice of roommate isn’t suitable or that their preferred location isn’t safe.

Sadly, this is a reality that many adults with developmental disabilities and their caregivers face.

According to a 2019 study conducted by The ARC and The Council on Quality and Leadership, when asked how they decided where they or their family member with an intellectual or developmental disability (I/DD) should live, many participants responded that they did not have a choice. The home where the person with the intellectual or developmental disability lived was the only option available to them or they were placed by external forces and did not have a choice.
"It was this, or an institution, or dead," said a study participant with I/DD.

Fortunately, the institutionalization of adults with I/DD has ended. But, the where, who, and what of living situations continue to pose challenges to adults with I/DD, their family members, and caregivers.

Denise Gehringer is familiar with that challenge. For her, it began the day her son, Jacob, was born. 

"When my son was born, one of the very first things I did was calculate if it was possible for me to outlive him. Not many new parents are thinking that way immediately after the birth of their child," Gehringer said.

Jacob was born with Down syndrome. Gehringer’s calculations were due to the worry that at some point, after her and her husband’s deaths, Jacob would not have a caregiver or a home.
It was Jacob’s birth, 28 years ago, that set the course for Gehringer to meet Shirley McNally. Like Gehringer, McNally has a son with Down syndrome. The two shared the same worry: Will our sons be able to find safe, secure housing after we’re gone?

That worry turned into action, which in turn evolved into a grassroots movement. The end result? A new community for adults with disabilities: Sheltering Tree. 

The McNally family worked tirelessly to bring together the Omaha and Lincoln Orthodox Christian churches, other local churches, private donors, and families for the creation of the first nonprofit Sheltering Tree location in 2008. 

Sheltering Tree, nicknamed ‘The Tree’ by tenants, realized quick growth and was soon in high demand. It was clear to the McNally couple that the community needed an executive director to spearhead that growth. Enter Gehringer, the Tree’s first official executive director.

“The growth we’ve experienced shows that we are filling a gap for adults with disabilities. We have a wait list of more than 220 people. We started with two buildings, and that grew to four by 2023. We hope to add two more, for a total of six, in the next few years,” Gehringer shared.
Gehringer’s first-hand experience with her own son has lent itself to her work as executive director.

“This is more of a vocation than a career or a job. I know from my own experience with Jacob that what parents or caregivers of an adult with a disability really want is for their child to live a happy, healthy, and meaningful adult life,” she said. “That really starts with a safe and secure place to live.” 

Sheltering Tree’s model provides that safe environment and promotes true independence for all tenants. Often times, an adult with an I/DD has a home that is tied to a specific service provider. Sheltering Tree’s model is unique in that it allows tenants to choose their own provider based on their individual needs.

Gehringer shared, “Every person who lives at Sheltering Tree has a different level of independence, so supports look different for each person. We encourage each individual to decide what support they need, how they would like to receive that support, and who do they want to partner with. That self-determination fosters a sense of dignity.”

Julie and Ed Czepa have two adult sons with developmental disabilities. Stephen, 28, and Matthew, 26, plan to move to Sheltering Tree this fall and look forward to their next step toward independence, toward that rite of passage.

“We are all excited for what the future holds. We went from a feeling of uncertainty, not knowing where their home would be to a feeling of hope. That is all due to Sheltering Tree,” Julie said. “You couldn’t ask for more.”  

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This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 
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