A choice community – St. Andrew’s Village promises adults with special needs the freedom and support to thrive

From the moment James Tomeny was diagnosed with autism, his mother, Ellen, worried about his future. How would he function in society as an adult? What would happen after she and her husband, Pat, could no longer care for him?

There were no easy answers to these questions. Baton Rouge and the surrounding areas lacked a satisfactory long-term care solution for adults with autism and other developmental disabilities. But when shovels strike soil on Nov. 30, James’ prospects will be brighter than his mother initially dared to hope.

That’s when the groundbreaking for St. Andrew’s Village in Abita Springs is set to take place, promising a new kind of future for James, 24, and other special-needs adults. The first entity of its kind in Louisiana, St. Andrew’s aims to allow disabled individuals to “live, work, worship and socialize throughout their lifelong journey.” But they won’t do it alone. Far from isolated, these adults will interact daily with the non-disabled through specially designed enterprise programs, recreational activities and community outreach.

The St. Andrew’s Village initiative has been in the works for 15 to 20 years, says village Executive Director Donna Breaux, herself the mother of a daughter with special needs who passed away five years ago at the age of 16. “A group of parents got together and all expressed concern over what would happen to their adult special-needs children once they were no longer able to care for them,” Breaux explains. “The idea evolved into creating a mixed-use community that would be open to the community at large but would also provide the protection that these individuals need to live and thrive, and allow them the utmost choice and independence.”

The ensuing years have been spent raising funds and fulfilling governmental obligations to start construction. The village, located on a 100-acre site within the Abita Springs town limits, will be built in five phases. The first, which will cost about $16 million, will include eight four-bedroom homes in which developmentally disabled adults will live alongside support staff. These residents may choose to work in the community’s enterprise-program building, which will also be part of the first phase; here, visitors will find a restaurant, a gift shop and other offerings, like a ceramics workshop and a bakery. Health and wellness will be the focus of a third building, which will feature a basketball court, a stage for special performances and productions, and an exercise area.

“St. Andrew’s will be different in that the villagers will have three options: They can live and work at the village, they can live in the village and work in the surrounding community, or they can live in the surrounding community and work in the village,” says Ellen Tomeny, who has been part of the push for the village project for several years and most recently organized a silent-auction fundraiser in the Baton Rouge area.

Finding meaningful activities for the villagers is a key part of the project’s focus, says Breaux. “We all have talents, and it’s just finding how to best apply those talents and providing the support so those people are successful.”

Donna St. Cyr, a member of the St. Andrew’s Village board of directors and a Baton Rouge resident, is excited about the possibilities the new village will open up for her own 24-year-old autistic son, Stephen.

“It is my responsibility as a parent to help Stephen be as independent as possible but to make sure that I have filled in the gaps for the things that he will not be able to do for himself,” St. Cyr says. “St. Andrew’s will fill those gaps in a manner that encourages him to live out his life with as much freedom as possible.”

• Upcoming fundraising events include DragoMania, set for Oct. 6 at Drago’s Seafood Restaurant in Metairie, which will feature a multicourse meal and big-screen TVs for viewing the Saints play; and A SAV-vy Affair, set for Nov. 22 at the Chicory in New Orleans, which will feature live music, food from area restaurants, and auctions.

• Volunteer opportunities will be available once construction begins. To get the latest information, sign up for the St. Andrew’s Village e-newsletter by visiting saintandrewsvillage.org. There, you’ll also find information on monetary contributions and the latest on the project’s progress.