Smart houses offer independence in Aliquippa


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“Welcome to my new home. My name is Felton Brown but I like to be called Tony. Good to meet you,” he told visitors using a speech-generating device.

From the outside, the well-kept red brick ranch style house does not stand out in any way from other houses on Brodhead Road. But inside, the house is special and different.

This is a Smart Home.

Four middle-aged men moved in late last month. During a “demonstration day” last Thursday, they were happy to show how they use special gadgets, modified appliances and computer tablets to live in a more self-sufficient manner.

The residents are in wheelchairs and each has multiple physical challenges and intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The home is owned and operated by NHS Allegheny Valley School, which famously has benefited from the sale of Pittsburgh Steeler Terrible Towels. Since 2008, the school has been a wholly owned subsidiary of NHS Human Services.

The non-profit company provides community-based services for 40,000 children and adults in eight states, including 900 in Western Pennsylvania. 

Mr. Brown can not speak in the traditional way, but he uses a computerized device called a DynaVox that speaks for him. He also uses the device to get email and to operate televisions.

Mr. Brown, or Tony, as he prefers to be called, also showed visitors how he can use the kitchen sink, whose height can be adjusted to meet the needs of the user. 

Another resident, Michael Marenkovich, demonstrated how he can operate the dishwasher.

Michael Rankin led visitors to his room where he used an iPad to turn lights off and on and to raise and lower the shades on his window.

“It may seem like a small thing, but when you have never been able to do it yourself, it becomes a big deal when you can raise and lower you own shades,” said Carol Erzen, director of training.

The company’s first Smart Home uses technology that includes motorized kitchen cabinets and adjustable heights for sinks and the stove top. Residents demonstrated how they can use the dish washer, microwave and the television in the living room. The staff remotely controls the heating and air conditioning.

“The is cutting edge technology,” said M. Joseph Rocks, chairman and CEO of NHS Human Services. “This project took two and one-half years of planning. I am amazed residents learned to use the technology in just two weeks.”

”We owe enormous gratitude to the Polk Foundation in Pittsburgh” for funding the technology, Mr. Rocks said. 

Doors in the Smart Home were widened to accommodate wheel chairs, a large bathroom was specially adapted to the needs of residents. A wheelchair ramp gives residents access from the sidewalk to a large covered porch in the rear of the house.

The table in the large, bright sunny kitchen has wheels, so it can moved out of the way to accomodate activities and parties.

Each of the men has his own bedroom, and they get to pick their furnishings and decor.

George Belliconish was eager to show off his room, which has a red, white and blue Boston Red Sox bedspread.

Asked if he is a Boston native, Mr. Belliconish smiled and shook his head to indicate ”no“.

”You just like the Red Sox?“ a visitor asked.

Mr. Belliconish smiled again to indicate ”yes.“

Three of the men have lived together since 1988. Mr. Marenkovich joined them about 8 years ago. The moved to the Smart Home two weeks ago from another group home.

Allegheny Valley School started in 1960 to provide care for 10 children. 

The growth of NHS Human Services ”has been a result of the state asking Allegheny Valley School to take over failing programs or to provide care for residents when state institutions were closed,“ says the company news release.

Linda Wilson Fuoco: lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1953.


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