Christine Zielinski is a special education teacher from Oak Park, IL. Christine kindly agreed to meet for coffee to tell us how Esperanza has changed her life, as well as the life of her sister Susie, who has a developmental disability.

“I’ve always been an advocate for Susie,” Christine says. “After she finished high school in 1981, she stayed at home with my parents. They were nervous about her being more independent and didn’t want her to get hurt. They were being protective. But Susie wanted a little more freedom. She even began sleeping during the daytime and staying up at late at night to watch TV so she could have the house to herself.”

With the exception of a weekly religion class at the church she attended, Susie continued to live with her parents for nearly 30 years.  “She had become isolated, and it wasn’t good,” Christine continues. “She became very set in her ways and a certain set of habits. For a long time, Susie had been stagnant because no one pushed her. She watched a lot of TV and colored. That’s all she knew. And so when I asked what she wanted to do, she either said watch TV or color.”

Christine knew a change had to be made. “I would tell my parents that we needed a plan for Susie, but they weren’t on board,” she says. “I wanted Susie to be more independent, and I knew she could be. It was frustrating.”  As their parents’ health began to decline, Susie began taking small steps toward increased independence, showing that she wanted to do more to take care of herself. After their parents passed away, Christine moved back home to become Susie’s primary caretaker and guardian.  “If something happened to me, I needed to have something in place for Susie. I knew I could not take care of her forever.”

A friend recommended they add Susie’s name to the the PUNS list (Prioritization for Urgency of Need for Services, the statewide list of families that need support for an individual with a developmental disability). “Eventually, we were selected from the list and connected with Esperanza Community Services. I knew the residential program would be a great fit for Susie, and luckily, there was an opening.”

The opening was in Sophia House, one of Esperanza’ CILA (Community Integrated Living Arrangement) homes. CILA is a program that enables residents to live as independently as possible while providing 24-hour support and supervision. Esperanza operates four homes on the northwest side of the city that provide safe, family-like environments for residents, and Sophie House is one of two Esperanza homes that serve women.

Susie moved in, but the transition wasn’t smooth. “She was pretty angry at first,” Christine says. “Her routines were disrupted, and she didn’t like that.” But before long, Susie grew comfortable in her new surroundings and became friends with her housemates. And she began to enjoy her increased independence. “Susie is a lot happier now, and she has a lot more confidence. She’s willing to try new things and is more open to new experiences. And she has friends. They enjoy each other’s company, and I know Susie loves it when they go on outings.”

“Esperanza is exactly what Susie needs,” Christine says. “There is support and care, but it’s her home. She feels better about herself, and it shows.”  Esperanza has restored a sense of balance for Christine as well. “Susie will come to visit me, but now it’s a regular sibling visit.  I’ll ask her how long she wants to stay and she’ll say, Oh, two or three days. And when that time is up she’s ready to go. She truly sees Esperanza as her home. She has her own life, and I have mine.”

Susie’s transition to Esperanza has put Christine’s mind at ease. “I don’t have to worry now. I know Susie is taken care of. She’s in good hands. Esperanza gives me peace, and it gives Susie independence.”

And what does Christine want for Susie’s future?

“I hope she is able to continue building independence and working on her communication skills,” Christine says. “I know she’s in a good place and that Esperanza can provide lots of new opportunities for growth.”

“In a word, Esperanza is perfect,” Christine says. “It’s just perfect for our situation. They are supportive and nurturing, and the staff are so caring.  So many families need this type support. My parents felt that no one else could take care of Susie.  But everyone needs help, and it’s OK to seek it out. I just wish we had known about Esperanza sooner.”

Many thanks to Christine for sharing her story with us. When you donate to Esperanza Community Services, you are making stories like Susie and Christine’s possible.

Featured image: Christine Zielinski, left, is an advocate for sister Susie, an Esperanza resident.