Parents raise funds to build an affordable apartment complex where people with developmental disabilities can live independently

“We are mostly moms who want to look to the future.”
7 min. read
Sarah gives Lexi Ziegler a hug as the Stepping Stone day center moves out of Columbine Hills Church of the Nazarene, Littleton, April 6, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

A move can be chaotic. But Lexi Ziegler showed no signs of stress as she wove around boxes and dodged workers lugging sofas. Stepping Stone, a day center for adults with disabilities, was relocating from one Littleton church to another nearby.

Ziegler has navigated other milestones. She first came to Stepping Stone for support and now works as an adviser at the center, guiding others through vocational training and other programs and proudly earning a paycheck. Ziegler has a friendly, confident way of keeping people on task.

"When I first transitioned to being staff, it felt like I had a foot in both worlds," she said.

"Now it's gotten a lot better. They're like, 'You're the boss.' I'll take that," Ziegler said, and laughed.

Her mother Barbara Ziegler is planning for more changes and challenges for her 27-year-old daughter. Barbara Ziegler founded the nonprofit Stepping Stone Communities to raise funds to build an affordable apartment complex in Littleton where people with developmental disabilities can live independent, engaged lives when their parents can no longer be there for them.

Stepping Stone Communities is separate from but a natural outgrowth of the similarly named day center that Barbara Ziegler also helped start.

After Lexi Ziegler finished Chatfield High School, she stayed at home while other graduates went off to college and careers. Barbara Ziegler saw other developmentally disabled teens in similar situations.

"The kids were stagnating," she said.

One day her daughter said she'd had a call from a friend who was home from Colorado State University for the holidays and had invited her to lunch.

"That doesn't happen with our kids,"  Barbara Ziegler said.

Barbara Ziegler speaks to a reporter in an office at a church that hosted the day center she founded for adults with developmental disorders. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Terry teaches a class on making change in a cash register. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The friend was Bryn Baldassari, who was in her daughter's class at Chatfield. Baldassari had taken an interest in fellow high school students with special needs and struck close friendships with several. Baldassari was studying human development at CSU and told Barbara Ziegler that when she graduated she wanted to start her own program for some of her friends and others in need.

Barbara Ziegler, who has been a teacher and principal and founded a charter school, worked with Baldassari to open Stepping Stone Support Center in 2013, the year Baldassari graduated from CSU.

Baldassari still directs the center, which offers hands-on training to prepare people with developmental disabilities for long-term employment. Participants run a food bank, learning to solicit for donations, take inventory and stock shelves. They also gain business skills by manufacturing and selling items such as lip balm and candles and serving the public once a week at a coffee shop. The cafe is stocked in part with pastries prepared by the Stepping Stone culinary team. Stepping Stone's Web site and social media accounts are in the hands of marketing trainees. The center, which serves more than 100 people now, is organized as a cooperative, with participants drawing dividends. Support staff includes a transportation coordinator to help participants get to and from the center.

"She has grown so much with Stepping Stone," Barbara Ziegler said of her daughter. "We have a number of people who can live in their own apartment with support."

For now, Lexi Ziegler lives with her 72-year-old mother, who is a widow.

Dianne Arendt, whose 37-year-old son is developmentally disabled, recently turned 70.

"We all realize that our adults who have been living with us all their lives could be living on their own" one day, said Arendt, who is on the board of Stepping Stone Communities and organizing an April 11 fundraising gala for the housing project.

"We are mostly moms who want to look to the future," Arendt said.

Stepping Stone Communities was formed in 2016, shortly after Barbara Ziegler's husband died unexpectedly.

"All of a sudden it was just me there for Lexi," she said.

Lexi has seven siblings and step-siblings who will look out for her, their mother said.

"But she needs a life of  her own."

Lexi Ziegler hangs out during the move. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Bryn Baldassari and Lexi Ziegler (left and right) pose for a photo with Rachel. Stepping Stone at the Columbine Hills Church of the Nazarene, Littleton, April 6, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

As with the support center, Barbara Ziegler said, she began the housing project by doing research. She discovered some sobering figures -- at least 8,000 adults with developmental disabilities in Colorado are living with parents or other caregivers who are 60 years or older.

Julie Reiskin, executive director of the advocacy group Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, is not involved with Stepping Stone. Reiskin has an adult child with a disability and understands the concerns parents like Barbara Ziegler and Arendt have for their children.

"Some kind of permanent affordable housing is what they need," Reiskin said. "What you're talking about is someone with very low income."

People with conditions that limit their physical, learning, language, or behavior skills can work. Arendt's son's activities include working two days a week as an office assistant for a housing developer. But Reiskin said employment among people with any disabilities is just 30 percent, and when they do work they are paid 30 percent less than people without disabilities. Social Security benefits average around $770 a month, Reiskin said. She said it can be more for people who have worked but still often not enough to cover Denver area rents, which have been averaging around $1,400.

A roommate could help, but how to ensure that's safe? Group homes are an option that provides support and security for tenants with disabilities, but their waiting lists can be long.

"Someone living on Social Security can't afford their own place," Reiskin said. "Affordable housing is an issue for a lot of people."

Barbara Ziegler envisions half the apartments in her complex being for people without disabilities who need affordable housing and can help manage the project as a cooperative. Reiskin said that 50 percent proportion of people without disabilities might have to be higher to ensure sustainability, but applauded the Stepping Stone team for not planning to segregate people with disabilities.

The planned Stepping Stone apartment complex will have a common dining room and kitchen for residents who can't prepare their own meals and areas where everyone can socialize. Parents worry about their children with disabilities being isolated or ostracized. The Stepping Stone planners hope to build a community.

"We'll be looking for people who want to be part of this community," Barbara Ziegler said.

Staff will be on site 24/7 to ensure safety. A model apartment will be available where prospective tenants can practice independent living with supervision before moving to their own place.

"We've thought of a lot, a lot of things," Barbara Ziegler said.

She's identified a site, land that Littleton's Waterstone Community Church has agreed to offer for a below-market price. Brad Heykoop, a Waterstone pastor, said members of his church would likely support apartment residents in areas such as transportation.

Pat, A Latte Love's financial director, and Darby hang out in the coffeshop. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Culinary advisor Tucker Riley works in the kitchen with Matt and Rachel. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"If you really care about what God cares about, you should care about those who are struggling," Heykoop said.

Barbara Ziegler said her "very optimistic goal is to break ground next year."

She and her supporters have so far raised about $3 million of the $10 million they estimate they need for a 68-unit complex. Barbara Ziegler hopes it could be the first of many.

Lexi Ziegler, meanwhile, has her own ambitions. She'd like to buy a home for herself.

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