05/09/2012 10:39 am ET Updated Jul 09, 2012

Change a Life Forever With That Spare Bedroom

"After my sister passed, my house felt so empty," said Nancy Dukes, from Keysville, Ga. Nancy spent a lifetime caring for her sister, who had Down syndrome. Following her death, Nancy felt the loss in many ways, big and small. "Being able to nurture her and support her on a daily basis had become part of who I was," said Nancy. "Losing her was like losing part of me."

With a spare bedroom and a desire to make a difference, Nancy, a retired nurse, realized that she had the resources and skills to help one of the thousands of other people like her sister. There are more than 100,000 individuals with developmental disabilities waiting to access community-based services -- many of whom are living in hospitals or large facilities due to a lack of alternatives.

Nancy knows firsthand the importance of offering people with disabilities the chance to thrive in a community setting. She decided to give someone that chance by opening her home through The MENTOR Network's Host Home program. The Host Home program is a shared living, community-based service in which everyday people, who we call Mentors, welcome an individual with intellectual and developmental disabilities into their private family home. Nancy was eager to help change the life of a person in need by becoming a Mentor.

Our team at Georgia MENTOR matched Nancy with Julia, a 49-year-old woman who had lived in a hospital since the age of seven. We worked closely with Nancy to facilitate a seamless transition for Julia from the hospital to her new home. Prior to the move, we held meetings with Nancy and the hospital staff, during which Nancy learned about Julia's behaviors, preferences, and needs. It was also during these meetings that Nancy and Julia got to know each other, giving them the opportunity to bond. Through careful planning, Nancy became Julia's Mentor, and helped Julia make an easy transition to her new home and her new life.

Careful planning like this goes into every one of our transitions -- it's what helps ensure someone's life-changing decision to provide a home for a person with disabilities does, in fact, change a life for the better. It is important that all of our Mentors are thoroughly prepared for the challenges involved in caring for these individuals. This preparation includes general skill development opportunities as well as information and guidance on how to meet an individual's specific needs.

Julia has thrived since her transition to Nancy's home. While living in the hospital, Julia had become frustrated with her inability to communicate with the busy staff, which led to aggressive behavior. With Nancy, Julia receives individualized care and support in a home setting. She has found peace. After only a year with Nancy, Julia no longer exhibits aggressive behavior, and is able to enjoy a more active and fulfilling life. She attends a day program with new friends during the week, and spends time with Nancy on the weekends. Julia now has a supportive, nurturing home and has made a friend for life.

By welcoming Julia into her home, Nancy feels that her life has been enriched, too. She cherishes her new friend. "Since Julia moved in, we have found a companionship that makes life so much easier for both of us," says Nancy, "We are so grateful to The MENTOR Network for placing us together."

At The MENTOR Network we are building relationships and enhancing lives through our Host Home program, the kind of home that Nancy provides to Julia. If you are interested in opening your home to an individual in need, or would just like to learn more, please visit our website.