The apartment that Stephen Rouse calls home could be that of any 30-year-old bachelor in Johnson County.
Movie posters and Chiefs memorabilia decorate the white walls; his favorite DVDs (and there are many) line the shelves next to his flat-screen TV. A felt dartboard hangs on one wall, with a desk across from it adorned with framed pictures of friends and family.
His karate belts (white, green, yellow, and orange) are displayed neatly on the wall in his bedroom.
Stephen’s adoration for Roswell, N.M., where he spent two years in vocational school, is showcased in frames above his bed.
Stephen has lived in this apartment in Mission by himself for almost nine years. But unlike other young adults, for him, living independently wasn’t always an option. As a young adult with Down syndrome, he has faced challenges that would make independent living seem like a daunting task.
That’s where the Mission Project came in.
Founded in 2004, the Mission Project is a nonprofit that enables young adults with developmental or cognitive disabilities to live independently in a community. The young adults, most of whom have jobs, live by themselves in the same apartment complex on Dearborn between Johnson Drive and Martway. They participate in group activities, such as exercise classes at Sylvester Powell Community Center, a book club or acting classes at the Barn Players Theater.
The Mission Project members live among non-disabled families in the apartment complex. The young adults and their parents are responsible for their leases, their own apartment furnishings and other amenities. With four vans and three part-time drivers, the Mission Project provides transportation to and from work, the grocery store and other activities for the young adults.
But perhaps what sets the Mission Project apart from other living programs for people with special needs is that it is a parent-cooperative organization.
After Stephen graduated from Shawnee Mission East High School, his parents, Larry and June Rouse, sent him to a vocational school in Roswell, N.M., where he lived in a dorm with two roommates for two years.
“I was prepared to stay, but he did very well,” said June, who also created the Down Syndrome Guild of Greater Kansas City.
After spending some time in Roswell with Stephen, he told her it was time for her to leave. He was ready to live on his own.
“He told me it was embarrassing to have his mother there,” June said. “We decided at that point that we better go home and try to figure out what would be a good place for him to move because he sure wasn’t coming back to our house.”
The more the Rouses looked, the more they realized the type of program they were looking for in the Kansas City area didn’t exist. So, along with two other couples with disabled children, they decided to create their own.
“We knew that the three families could do it alone if no one else wanted to do it,” Larry said. “And that’s where it formed. We started holding informational meetings. ... People started joining us and it got bigger and bigger.”
Today, the Mission Project and Mission Project 2, a second group started last year, house 28 young adults with disabilities. Some have Down syndrome, while others have autism, are hearing or vision impaired or are undiagnosed.
The parents are directly involved in the Mission Project, often coordinating activities for the young adults and sitting on the board of directors to help make decisions for the nonprofit. Parents can choose to privately pay for care providers for their children or use licensed services through the state of Kansas who help them get ready for activities, check up on them or work with them in specific trouble areas.
“One of the things that we wanted to have was the ability for these young adults to be integrated in their own community,” said Jim Wise, who helped co-found the Mission Project with his wife, Carody. “They have developed relationships with so many people at the apartment complex, in the city of Mission, the businesses. And so to me it’s a win-win for everybody.”
The parent involvement also helps support parents who otherwise may be alone in their decision making.
“At one point, you were a single couple trying to negotiate whatever system was out there for your child,” June said. “With the Mission Project, you have someone to work with you and to help you and support you.”
When Dave and Terie Janus moved to Stilwell from Ohio in 2010, they uprooted their son Jesse, who is developmentally disabled, from a familiar school system and home life to a world of unknown.
Jesse had one year of school left after moving before his parents had to decide their next step.
“Terie and I were scratching our heads, saying, ‘Oh boy, what are we going to do with Jess here?’” Dave said. “And then we heard about the Mission Project.”
Jesse, now 23, has lived in his own apartment through the Mission Project for a year and a half.
Because Jesse was adopted at birth, Dave and Terie Janus didn’t discover Jesse’s developmental issues until he started school and was progressing slower than other students. After testing, it was determined that Jesse had ADHD and low IQ. His mental acuity and acumen are about the fourth-grade level.
The Mission Project has provided the steppingstone Jesse needed from adolescence to adulthood.
“We wanted to make sure he got a head start on building as much independence as he could, and this seemed like a great place to help him do that,” Dave said. “There’s a lot of family support; a lot of participant support, and so Jess wasn’t just moving out of the house and kind of being dumped into the apartment. He was moving here with friends.”
When Jesse isn’t working as a houseman at SpringHill Suites or at his other part time job at Petco, he can be found playing Wii in his apartment, taking care of his cat, Lily, or participating in one of the many activities coordinated by the Mission Project.
And how does he like living on his own?
“I love it,” he said.
Jesse’s especially fond of the Zumba class he takes at Sylvester Powell Community Center and the friends he’s made through the Mission Project.
“Sometimes the kids host little events, like movie nights or game nights,” he said.
Jesse’s life has changed in a number of ways since he joined the Mission Project, but the ability to make his own decisions on a daily basis has been the biggest.
“Jesse’s scheduling his own appointments; Jesse’s picking up his own groceries,” Terie said. “He’s doing his own thing. If he needs to go to CVS, he goes to CVS. It’s just been amazing to watch. Those type of things we all have to learn when we live by ourselves.”
There are still challenges in Jesse’s daily life; a call from the cable company may cause some confusion, and he works with his mother on his finances. If a maintenance issue arises with his apartment, it may go unattended until his parents or someone else notices it.
But the the challenges are nothing compared to the growth he has experienced through the Mission Project.
“He’ll meet new people and get new experiences,” Dave said. “It’s the umbrella that protects him and the safety net that protects him. It helps him grow.”
Last Saturday, bright hats and smiles fill the Carriage Club on State Line Road for the annual Run for the Roses Kentucky Derby Gala. The fundraiser is one of the Mission Project’s biggest, drawing in nearly 400 supporters who will bid on live and silent auction items and bet on the horse of their choice.
It’s a decorated affair, with bow ties and boat shoes galore. The young adults, their families and Mission Project supporters are dressed to the nines in their Derby best.
What once started as a small event six years ago has turned into a packed room, with families, friends, co-workers and even former Chiefs quarterback Trent Green. As people mingle, they eye the coveted items offered in the silent auction, which include Royals tickets, a $150 gift card to the Country Club Plaza, massages and spa packages. When the live auction begins, Kelly Jones from KCTV5 will present the big-ticket items, like a vacation package to South Carolina and a three-day shopping spree at Bloomingdale’s in Chicago.
But it’s not all races and roses. The event draws in money that helps the Mission Project give the young adults a better quality of life. The Mission Project’s budget is $200,000 to $250,000 a year, most of which goes for transportation costs. The nonprofit also benefits from proceeds at its annual holiday concert and golf tournament.
A longtime friend and supporter, Ken Hickerson, has seen the Mission Project evolve from its beginning stages into a program that continues to grow and spread awareness.
“I think as a result of this it’s opened up the eyes of many to what these young adults can accomplish in the general consumer marketplace, living on their own independently,” Hickerson said. “Not only do they appreciate the freedom as much as anybody, but their parents also appreciate the freedom it’s afforded them.”
The proceeds from fundraisers like the Derby gala allow the Mission Project to pay for vans, which serve as the primary form of transportation for the young adults. It also helps pay the part-time drivers and a majority of the programming.
“Our No. 1 challenge is always transportation,” Larry Rouse said. “It’s real important; we early on lost several jobs because we were in a transportation system that just wasn’t able to get them there on time. And since we’ve had our own transportation system, we hear repeatedly from employers, ‘This is the most dependable employee I have.’”
Dave Janus’ company, First National Bank in Johnson County, recently donated funds for the Mission Project to buy a new van to help transport its members.
The Mission Project has expanded with a second group called Mission Project 2. The group, which also lives in Mission in a complex a block away from the original, started in June 2012 and has 10 members. It is governed by parents trained by the Rouses.
“There are plenty of places to live, and we grow and grow,” Larry Rouse said. “There’s no limit. But have you ever been to a board of directors meeting with 36 people? That’s a lot of people and that’s what we have now. So you lose your continuity, you lose your ability to make decisions when you get too big, and that’s why we started a second group.”
“It’s been a multifaceted approach,” said Andrea Hickerson, who has known June Rouse and Kay Webb, who's daughter, Susan, is in the Mission Project, since they were 11. “This is such a unique concept that I think is universal. It takes time, energy, intelligence and perseverance, and they have all of those... It shows you can integrate just about any group of people.”
It’s Wednesday afternoon, and Stephen Rouse is sitting on the brown leather couch in his apartment, reading a pop-up book about London with an aide provided for Stephen by Kansas Focus, a licensed care provider. In celebration of his 30th birthday, Stephen will be taking a trip to London with his parents, one of many overseas trips he’s taken in his 30 years.
After the aide leaves, Stephen prepares his lunch for the next day. He’ll eat his pastrami sandwich, carrots and raisins during his shift at a veterinary clinic, the part-time job he’s had for nine years.
After he packs his lunch, he heads for the spot between the wood coffee table and the couch, where he watches “That ’70s Show” and sips his Pepsi One. This is his time to unwind before his night of activity, which includes Fitness with Lee and karate at Sylvester Powell Community Center.
He changes into his karate gear and packs his backpack with a water bottle and his keys before he heads back to the TV. At 4:30, it’s time for dinner. It’s Wednesday, which is hot dog night, as Stephen prepares two hot dogs, corn and a fruit cup for his meal.
Later, at Sylvester Powell, Stephen and eight others from the Mission Project spread out on mats on the gym floor as they begin Fitness with Lee at 5:45 p.m. Lee Jones, their instructor, leads them through stretches, guiding them in correct form and counting as they go along.
They start with resistance bands, working on their bicep muscles and following along as Jones counts down the reps.
After the resistance bands, it’s on to the weighted medicine balls, where they do deadlifts, some not so willing as others.
“Now for our third set,” Jones says.
When their form is incorrect, he’ll point out how to fix their mistakes. A certified physical trainer, Jones and the Mission Project “go way back,” Jones said. He’s a leader and a director, but like many of them, he also has Down syndrome.
After Fitness with Lee, most of the young adults move on to karate, where they focus intently on the form and routine of their instructor, Brad Courtney. Courtney has been working with the Mission Project for about four years. He’s earned their trust; enough for them to let him come at them (gently) with his bo (stick) when practicing high and low blocks. Some are familiar with the sequences; others flinch each time the bo comes their way.
They line up single file to practice blocks with Courtney, then move on to high kicks with another instructor as they head to the back of the line.
On Thursday, it’s Zumba time. A newer activity for the Mission Project, the Zumba class became an opportunity after John Webb’s daughter, Susan, who is in the Mission Project, expressed interest in dance. While working out one day at Sylvester Powell, John noticed the class and arranged for an instructor to teach it to the young adults in the Mission Project.
“They do something almost every night,” said John Webb. “Susan loves being with her friends; she loves all of the activities.”
The class, it seems, has been a huge hit. On this snowy Thursday, nine are gathered to follow instructor Jan Peck’s steps as she walks them through the salsa, the tango and the Twist (a clear favorite).
The young adults follow Peck step-by-step, but aren’t afraid to add their own flair to the moves.
Peck instructs first without music, then adds in the beat once the moves have been repeated several times.
As the class draws to a close, Peck changes the music to the grand finale: the Twist. Their hips are swaying and their arms are jiving, smiles spread from ear to ear as they dance in unison to Peck’s moves.
“They just love to dance,” Peck said. “If they don’t get all the steps, that’s fine. They just love to move.”
The Mission Project has several goals: to help young adults with disabilities live independently, to provide a community for them to grow and form relationships in, and to be involved in activities that are valuable to them.
But for the parents, it’s also about the future.
“The whole idea is that if this becomes a permanent (organization), and we hope that it’s a permanent and stable organization, that when we’re not here, Stephen is being looked over and this program is being run by parents like us who care about the adults,” June Rouse said.
“We used to have one child with a disability, and now we have 18,” said Larry Rouse, who is in his early 60s. “We hope that Stephen can remain independent after we’ve passed on. And there are younger parents in the Mission Project and we hope they carry it on. We hope they think of Stephen as we think of their children.”
At 3 years old, Avery Crable is a bustling toddler. With a big grin and bright blond hair, she keeps her parents, Doug and Jennifer, busy in their Leawood home, often asking for snacks and snapping pictures with her play camera.
Before she was born, Avery was diagnosed with Down syndrome. The Crables began to worry about the challenges they, along with their daughter, would face. What would they do about school, transportation and childcare?
After becoming involved with the Down Syndrome Guild and First Downs for Down Syndrome, the Crables attended the annual Kentucky Derby Gala for the Mission Project in 2012. What seemed like a fun Saturday event turned into a serious thought.
“There was so much unknown, and then we go to this and we say ‘This is not that far away,’” Doug Crable said. “She’s going to go to college and she won’t want to move back with us, but we hadn’t thought that far.”
This year, the Crables were honorary co-leaders of the annual Derby event. Their recent involvement with the Mission Project has given them higher expectations for Avery.
“I don’t think that independent living was on our radar,” Jennifer Crable said. “Being introduced to the Mission Project just let us see the future and do everything that we need to do in the meantime to make sure that she can accomplish that.”