Emmaus: A little help along the way

From left, resident Mickey Scarselli, Emmaus Community CEO Karen Jacobsen, Direct Support Professional Caitlin Painter, and resident David Mulgrave.

As CEO of the nonprofit Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh, Karen Jacobsen runs an organization dedicated to providing community-based, permanent homes, in-home services, and advocacy for people with intellectual disabilities. There are a total of 14 homes in the Pittsburgh area, most in the South Hills. Jacobsen recently opened the newest in Mt. Lebanon in June, the third one in the municipality.

Jacobsen, Kewanna Drive, started as a volunteer at Emmaus in 1994, armed with a master’s degree in social work. She then moved to direct care, living with residents in one of the homes, along with her husband, Kerry. “I had found my niche,” she said. She eventually moved up to supervisor, then program manager, and became CEO in 2008.

There are approximately 50 adults in the Emmaus Community, most in co-living situations. The biggest problem is finding enough staff. It’s a hugely underserved population, according to Jacobsen, and the job of caregiver is complex.

“Every parent of an intellectually challenged child worries about what will happen when they, the parent, are no longer around,” she said. “That’s the need we seek to fill by providing our people with homes for life. There are 13,000 people on the waiting list for these living situations just in Pennsylvania.

“Unfortunately, our culture doesn’t value caregiving; it’s a national crisis. But it’s a great job for someone just out of college or for empty nesters. Pay is increasing, and the benefits are great. The most important quality is: can you build relationships? We can teach everything else.”

Each home has at least one live-in supervisor who assists with schedules, driving to jobs or vocational training, meal prep, etc. Residents are also encouraged to practice their faith if they wish. “We’re ecumenical and faith-based,” said Jacobsen, “but non-denominational.”

Emmaus was founded by a Mt. Lebanon couple, Ken and Lorraine Wagner, in 1989. Their fourth and youngest child, Cece, had been born in 1971 with intellectual disabilities. The Wagners’ mission was to integrate her into the community and help her live a fulfilling and meaningful life. They were influenced by Jean Vanier, who founded an international network of faith-based communities called L’Arche in France in 1964.

Lorraine became the first director of their new organization, which they called the Emmaus Community. The name references the New Testament story about Jesus walking with two men who don’t recognize him until they sit down and break bread together. Getting to know someone by eating a meal with them became the metaphor for the communal living mission of Emmaus.

“Emmaus was founded on a family-style model of people with and without disabilities living together and sharing their gifts,” said Jacobsen. “Ken and Lorraine saw the enormous need for quality housing and stepped in to provide it. They recognized the beauty and dignity in each person and sought to preserve that in living situations.”

Ken died in 2010, but Lorraine still serves on the Emmaus board. She says that their mission was always lifelong care, to provide a family structure for these special people. “We wanted to set up homes where people were part of their communities, not just living there. When they came to us, it would be for life,” Lorraine said.

Jacobsen says that COVID provided an unexpected gift in teaching her staff to work more with technology. “There’s nothing we didn’t do on Zoom!,” she laughed. “Arts & crafts, cooking classes, even our talent show—you name it, we Zoomed it! Unfortunately, though, technology will never care; it will never replace relationships.”

Emmaus also provides companionship and driving services for people who live in their own homes; hosts meetings for parents and caregivers; and advocates for the special needs population.

“Even in 2021, there’s still a lack of understanding,” said Jacobsen. “Our residents have the same right to be treated with dignity and respect as you do. We are trying to provide everyday life for them. They just need a little help.”

Photography by John Altdorfer