Mathew’s days are filled with things he loves to do— swinging outside, attending a day support program, and dancing to his favorite music from Luther Vandross and Maroon 5. His compassionate caregivers, Connie and Archie Elam, describe the 27-year-old as fun and sweet. Mathew has autism and communicates through laughs, sign language, and an iPad he recently received that allows him to express his needs and interests through pictures.
Just two years ago, Mathew’s life looked a lot different. Mathew was living in a group home and struggling.
“There were issues with hygiene, especially shaving and cutting his hair, clothes on inside out, and lunches that were inadequate and not nutritious,” said Vicki Hardy-Murrell, Mathew’s legal guardian. “I also received weekly updates from the group home, but they were cold, clinical and generic—they were just ‘checking a box’ without providing any insight as to how he was really doing—was he happy, was he cared for, etc.”
Connie and her husband Archie had become sponsored residential providers through DePaul in 2017. Connie felt called to be a provider, or compassionate caregiver as we like to say, after seeing the difference that love, care, and independence made in the life of her aunt who had a disability.
“People would be surprised what individuals with disabilities can do if you just give them a chance,” said Connie.
Mathew’s caseworker at that time two years ago thought the Elams would be a good match for him. After Mathew’s guardian Vicki visited the Elams, she agreed. Mathew’s thoughts about the transition were a bit harder to gauge at first, but the life he was living was not sustainable for him.
“He was kind of quiet and withdrawn and he stayed in his room,” said Connie.
Connie and Archie had been warned by the group home that Mathew would act out and possibly be violent. But they never saw that. Instead, they saw a young man move quickly from being quiet and unsure to comfortable and certain that their home was his home. Soon he had a new haircut, new clothes he picked out and purchased with his own bank card, and much-needed dental work for that beautiful, bright smile he had been missing.
“It was important that we let him do as much as possible on his own,” said Connie.
Mathew is part of the Elam family now. It is his family. He is cared for and loved. He looks forward to time with Connie’s children and grandchildren and they look forward to that time too. He is connected to his community.
“The best part is taking him out and letting him meet people and interact and be involved,” said Connie.
Perhaps the biggest sign that Mathew has settled into his new home and family is his space in Archie’s “man cave.” Mathew has his own recliner, his own collection of snacks, and retreats to that space whenever he wants. He signs, “Excuse me,” very politely when someone sits there just so they know it’s his chair. This may sound small or insignificant, but it is not. Mathew, who struggled to find himself and live the life he deserved, has planted roots in that space and that is huge. It is his space, a safe space where he, on his own, can find peace and independence.