Darien Foundation awards $80,700 grant for STAR smart home

Darien’s STAR Cottage is home to six residents with intellectual, and developmental disabilities, including wheelchair user, Ashley Milne. Currently, Milne depends on others to open and close doors for her.

When fellow resident, Tom Gogolak turns in for the night, he, and the residential staff perform a series of tasks to lock up the house, arm the security system, and shut down all of the devices.

Now, through a $80,700 grant from the Darien Foundation, the STAR group residence will literally be able to open doors for Milne. The technological advancements funded by this grant will also enable her, Gogolak, and the other residents to live more independently, have more privacy and be less reliant upon others. The assistive technology will also improve the quality of life for residents with intellectual, and development disabilities, and the hope is the Darien Cottage will become a showcase to inspire other local families.

While the six residents at the Darien Cottage are already living semi-independently, and several of them hold jobs, and volunteer locally, the Smart Home assistive technology will allow them to be more self reliant in their home.

In addition to improving the quality of life of the residents, the Cottage will also serve as a model for other individuals with IDD, and their families to visit, and see the many possibilities available. The cottage is one of over a dozen residences that the nonprofit organization, STAR, Inc., Lighting the Way, operates, and oversees for adults with IDDs in the area. The end goal is to augment those residences with Smart Home technology, as well.

“The Darien Foundation is thrilled to have awarded this timely and important grant to STAR. Not only will this benefit the residents of the Darien Cottage, but the reach of this project will extend past Edgerton Street as a resource and model for other Darien families and adults with IDD,” Ward Glassmeyer, the foundation’s board chairman, said.

“Assistive technology for people with disabilities is literally opening up doors and opportunities that were never thought possible,” Katie Banzhaf, the executive director at STAR said.

“Clearly, this pandemic has magnified the needs and benefits of technology to keep us all safe, connected, and healthy. This grant will showcase some of the newest technology available to improve lives. We are excited and grateful to The Darien Foundation for investing in this program and sharing our future vision,” Banzhaf said.

As part of the grant review process, Sean Calvillo, the Darien Foundation’s technology board chair, along with Calvillo’s committee, including Nicole Harder, and Brett Wein, board members, and consulted on the project.

The committee ultimately recommended that the initial proposal be expanded upon to ensure that the improvements would have longevity, and that they would thoroughly address all of the residents’ needs.

STAR turned to Kevin Vallerie, independent contractor, technology advisor, and owner of a local firm that specializes in Smart Home technology, Untangled.

“This experience is inspirational to me and my crew as we are learning to walk in the shoes of someone with a disability to determine how to adapt existing technology to address personal needs for safety, inclusion, connection, accessibility and communication,” Vallerie said.

STAR also enlisted Enrico Melchiorri, an assistive technology specialist, to collaborate, and advise on the project. Melchiorri has worked in assistive technology for 25 years, with STAR for two years, and is very knowledgeable about the different needs and challenges faced by adults with IDD.

“These improvements are extensive, but were also carefully researched to identify the simplest, and most budget conscious solutions,” Melchiorri, who provided vital input to the project, said.

Set to be installed this spring, 2021, enhancements will allow the residents to control lights, and other electronics in their rooms via their personal devices. They will also have greater privacy in their personal living spaces, as well as a bit more autonomy in the kitchen, owing to the special modifications.

At night. when Gogolak assists the staff with shutting down the cottage, he will soon be able to perform this ritual more efficiently with two to three simple button presses on his device, and also to simply say “turn off family room lights” to power down the integrated lighting system.

The cottage’s two main entrances will also be equipped with an automatic door function that can be operated by Milne, from a control panel on her wheelchair. Finally, an enhanced security system, including exterior video surveillance cameras, will be installed.

Latasha Smith, STAR residential manager, is excited to welcome the new technology.

“I think the new features will give the residents greater independence while assisting me and the staff in our duties to keep everyone safe, healthy and connected. It will be a win for everyone!” Smith said.

“I am also grateful that ongoing training and support for the staff and residents is a big part of this project. Having Kevin and Enrico instruct us as to how to use everything, and to have them on hand for technical support, will be very helpful,” Smith said.

“Our dream of a cottage in Darien for people with disabilities, including our son Tom, has been a reality for over ten years now. How fitting it is to celebrate this milestone by bringing in new technology to further enhance the lives of the residents. As parents, the added safety features, monitoring, and connections bring even greater peace of mind knowing that our son, and his staff, have beneficial new tools,” Kathy and Peter Gogolak, who are two of the founding parents of the cottage, said.

“We anticipate that the knowledge that we gain from installing this Smart Home showcase for people with disabilities will allow us to better serve other local families with similar challenges - and that’s a great feeling,” Vallerie said.

The Darien Foundation is an independent, community-based, 501(c) (3) public charity. Since 1998, The Darien Foundation has awarded over $4.7 million in grants for technology and capital initiatives, which create opportunity for Darien’s youth, support our town’s safety and security services, and enhance the overall quality of life in Darien. Most recently, the Darien Foundation has awarded grants to Corbin Cares, the Darien Arts Center, DAF Media, the Darien Police Department, The Depot Youth Center, Person to Person, and Darien TV79