03/23/2012 01:59 am ET Updated May 22, 2012

How to Make a Difference at Home

It was an ad in the Penny Saver that first sparked Barbara Hill's interest in opening her home and welcoming an adult with intellectual and developmental disabilities into her family as a Host Home provider. And it didn't take long after contacting the MENTOR Network, a national leader in supporting individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, that Barbara was welcoming Erin into her life.

"This is a friendship I'll have till I leave here," said Barbara, a retired teacher.

It's everyday heroes like Barbara and the thousands of other individuals who have decided to open their hearts and their homes to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and at-risk children who are making are making a difference at home by becoming Mentors with the MENTOR Network.

The MENTOR Network is called a "network" for a reason: it's not just one person or group. It's a national network of people, in communities across the country, who are joined by the common belief that positive, nurturing relationships are the basis for growth and change, and that these relationships are best fostered through active participation in the daily rhythms of neighborhood and family life.

We use the term "Mentor" because the people who open their homes become so much more than just a care provider. They are advocates, teachers, friends, and family. Mentors, like Barbara, are caring individuals from all walks of life. They may be empty-nesters or retirees, stay-at-home parents, single or married, but what they all have in common is the desire to make a difference in the life of another person.

Across the nation there are more than 100,000 individuals with developmental disabilities waiting for access to community-based services, while another 700,000 are currently living with an aging caregiver. In addition, there are more than 400,000 children in the foster care system. And while there are already thousands of individuals who have decided to make a difference at home, the need for community-based care continues to grow as states such as Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, and Virginia, to name just a few, close their state institutions and provide more options for residents to move into the community.

Erin has made so much progress that earlier this year she reached her goal of independent living and has moved into an apartment of her own.

"It breaks my heart," said Barbara with a smile and a look of pride as Erin was preparing to move out. "But this is what we have been working for. I am going to miss her. She is my beautiful child, and she has made my life worthwhile. I am just going to keep her in my heart for the rest of my life."

This is the first in a series of blog entries from the MENTOR Network that will introduce you to Mentors like Barbara and the adults and children that they support across the country. You'll find that Mentors are people like you and me who had a spare bedroom and an interest in making a difference in the life of another person. Mentors are ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing by making a difference at home. You can learn more at