Doug Waack, 41, proudly poses for a photo with Bonnie Lipton, on the left, and his mother Pat Lipton, in his bedroom he had a hand in decorating inside the new Peter and Brenda Watkins Home. JOYCE McKENZIE | Special to the Times
BRANDON — It began nearly a quarter century ago as casual conversations among friends at First Baptist Church Brandon.
Some parents in the congregation and surrounding community worried about how their intellectually challenged adult children would fare as they aged and could no longer care for them at home.
Today, Peter and Brenda Watkins, who wanted a place for their daughter, say those initial discussions have evolved into a blessing, an answer to their prayers.
Many of those same people gathered with a host of others at the New Horizons Group Homes on East Clay Avenue last week to dedicate the recent opening of the third of three faith-based residences on the property, not far from the church, where 19 highly functioning adults with developmental disabilities now call home.
The Peter and Brenda Watkins Home — aptly named for the couple who played major roles in the establishment, growth and sustainability of the assisted living complex — welcomed six men in early December. Each has their own room, and the use of a combination party-sized living room, kitchen and dining area.
The home also contains a large laundry facility and a screened-in patio for the residents’ use.
The first residence on the site, home to six women including the Watkins’ 44-year-old daughter Kimberly, opened in 1999 and was named in honor of Mary Lou Creamer, one of the founders of the First Baptist Brandon’s Special Ministries Department and New Horizons.
The Alice Storms Home, which houses eight men and opened in 2002, was given its name in recognition of the woman who was the first and longtime director of the church’s special ministries program.
The non-profit organization is different than the majority of most assisted living facilities in that it targets a specific segment of the population and is based on Christian principals and providing a family-like atmosphere. Its housing capacity is relatively small compared to other facilities that have 200-plus beds.
What also sets New Horizons apart from most others is that each resident is expected to take care of his or her personal needs and contribute to the household chores. And those who are able, work outside the facility either at a job or in a workshop.
In addition, they’re encouraged to take part in a variety of evening and weekend activities including weekly bowling nights, church services, trips to area attractions and amusement parks and more. The ongoing events are meant to keep residents fully content and engaged in the world around them.
"New Horizon is a huge blessing to us," said Brenda Watkins.
What they didn’t realize at the time was that it would also be a godsend for many other parents and guardians of adult children with cognitive disabilities.
New Horizons’ blueprint appears to have wide-spread appeal. Shelton received almost 300 applications prior to the opening of the Watkins home from people wishing to take advantage of what it has to offer.
Shelton also attributes its attraction to the fact that residents at New Horizons homes live in a clean, caring environment with a sense of independence, but with the availability of well trained staff members on site 24/7.
"We presently have a waiting list of about seven people," Shelton said.
Parents Pat and Bonnie Lipton said they looked throughout Florida for a "forever" home for Pat’s son Doug Waack, 41, who has Down syndrome, before he was accepted into the new Watkins home.
"It had to be an assisted living facility that was well maintained, where he’d receive loving care and we wanted it to be faith-based," Pat Lipton said. "We looked at five places in Orlando and Lakeland and visited three others in the Tampa area – a couple of which we didn’t want to go into because the yards were a mess and another one that’s in a really bad neighborhood."
The aging retired pair also said, if at all possible, it also was important to them that he be able to keep his job in the kitchen at St. Joseph’s John Knox Village.
The homes are sustained through residents’ monthly SSI or Social Security Disability payments. Additional funding is received via the MedWaiver program for those that qualify.
"My hope is that New Horizons will continue to provide the best services possible for our residents," said Peter Watkins, the recipient of the Tampa Bay Lightning Community Hero Award in February 2017 for his longtime leadership and dedication to New Horizons.
Watkins used the $50,000 he received from the Lightning award to furnish the Watkins home.
Peter Watkins also spoke about the next challenge facing New Horizons — how to transition its aging residents into a more intensive level of care.
"I know God has a plan. We just need to listen," he said.
Contact Joyce McKenzie at email@example.com.