• The Press: Angela’s House offers a place for kids in need

    Driving along Montauk Highway in East Moriches, there’s a friendly-looking yellow home just off the road near the bypass. It seems like any other except for the charming sign identifying it as “Angela’s House.”

    Inside, first glance reveals a typical home, extremely welcoming. The walls are adorned with murals, boasting bright colors and cute animals. A Christmas tree lights up a corner of the living room. Playground equipment dominates the backyard.

    You would have to strain your eyes to notice the less traditional aspects of Angela’s House–outlets to dispense oxygen in each room, the wheelchair-compatible playground swing. And that’s the point of the design of this house for medically frail, technologically-dependent children who require 24-hour care–to be a home, not an institution.

    Angela’s House recently celebrated its second anniversary. It houses seven children, ages 5 to 12, and is the only home of its kind in New York, according to founder Robert Policastro. Another house like it is slated to open in Smithtown, hopefully by the end of the year, he said.

    Mr. Policastro founded Angela’s House after losing a medically frail daughter, Angela, at the age of 1. Mr. Policastro and his wife struggled to find care for their child, who was born with several disabilities.

    “When my wife and I came to the heart-wrenching decision we wouldn’t be able to continue caring for her from home, we looked to see the closest place to help her. Everything we found was either out of state or very far upstate,” said Mr. Policastro, who lives in Hauppauge. Angela eventually ended up at a facility in New Britain, Conn.

    After she died 15 years ago, Mr. Policastro became an advocate to create a facility in Long Island where parents could have somewhere to visit their children easily, in an environment more intimate and friendly than a sterile hospital room or larger group home.

    With the help of State Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach), a former special education teacher and father of a disabled child, Mr. Policastro secured funding for Angela’s House after a four-year battle. Mr. Weisenberg called the lack of facilities such as Angela’s House in New York “a sin.”

    Angela’s House is a branching of Independent Group Home Living (IGHL), a non-profit organization based in East Moriches that runs various support services and residential centers for the physically and mentally disabled.

    Medicaid pays the cost of caring for the children at Angela’s House, who come from Nassau and Suffolk counties. And the home has served as a model for similar facilities across the country, said Mr. Policastro.

    “Angela’s House is special,” said Mr. Weisenberg. “It really raised the consciousness of government needing to prioritize the needs of those less fortunate.”

    What makes Angela’s House unique, he said, is the individualized attention the children get, the way it really seems like a home. Workers take the time to give the children as much care as possible, singing to them, playing with them, taking the time to treat those who are fed through tubes a taste of juice from a juice box. The walls are decorated with colorful murals painted by the Splashes of Hope charity organization.

    Angela’s House boasts a cast of characters, including Kelly O’Connell, 12, who loves classic rock, particularly the Beatles and Pink Floyd. There’s Johnny Boutin, 9, a huge fan of the movie “Shrek” who loves “causing trouble,” according to caregiver Sloane Alayn. And there’s 10-year-old Pedgie Palazzo, whose greatest love is playing the drums. They call themselves the Angelucachooka Tribe, in honor of their weekly “Survivor” night, where they watch the TV show and play musical instruments along with it.

    During the day, the kids go their separate ways to attend various special school programs in places from East Hampton to Bohemia. At night or on weekends and holidays, activities range from arts and crafts to bingo. They go pumpkin picking, and recently received a visit from Santa Claus.

    “They love everything,” said Kelly Castro, another caregiver at the house. “Talking, hugging, stories, painting–they do it all.”

    Parents usually visit about once a week, according to Mr. Policastro, though some come more frequently. When feasible, parents can take their children home for a visit.

    “We’re very lucky. It’s great for the whole family, including him,” said Kelly McGrath of Commack, whose son Thomas lives at Angela’s House. “He comes home very often, and he’s a big part of our life.”

    Ms. McGrath said bringing Thomas to Angela’s House was a hard decision to make, but she and her husband did not have the resources to properly care for his multiple disabilities at home.

    “We miss him terribly, but we know it’s the best situation they have,” said Ms. McGrath.

    There’s no limit on how long the children can stay at Angela’s House, but Mr. Policastro hopes to build another facility to house the children once they reach their late teens and early twenties that is more age-appropriate.

    But right now, Mr. Policastro is focusing on designing a respite center where parents can bring their disabled children and have them cared for a temporary basis.

    “It’s an overwhelming task at times, taking care of kids in the home,” said Mr. Policastro. “Sometimes the mothers become prisoners in their own homes; it’s very difficult.”

    He si in negotiations with a Catholic church for a lease agreement to open such a facility in Hauppauge.

    In the meantime, though, his original creation is thriving.

    “It’s so rewarding,” said Ms. Castro, the caregiver. “It’s all you live for, all you do it for, just to see them happy.”

    By Missy Frederick
    The Press (January 3, 2003)