It's late on a Wednesday afternoon in a red brick East Aurora house, a community residence for people who are developmentally disabled. On this busy street, the scene mirrors what's happening in many American families: relaxing, eating, sharing news of the day.
As soon as a visitor arrives, Joseph Lo-Duca, 43, starts a steady stream of chatter and leads a tour of the sprawling house, home to four women and seven men.
"I'm working on appropriate behavior," said LoDuca, who is temporarily grounded. He reminds a visitor that she should say "please" when asking for a cold drink.
In the dining room, attractively decorated in deep red paint accented with white woodwork and floral wallpaper, several people sit around two large tables pushed together.
Laurie Harrington is applying Ace Frost Blue polish to Jean Madison's nails. Peter Schwert has commandeered the computer for a game of solitaire. Mark Montague and others are intently studying brochures from Disney World, planning a vacation for six of them.
"I want to hit Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach," said Dawn McDowell, who switches between solving word puzzles and making plans for the vacation. Montague, 22, is equally psyched for this trip, which will be his first plane ride, his first vacation.
"I need to get a suitcase," he reminds program manager Sue Massara. She assures him that he'll have one before they leave.
From the outside, group homes blend unobtrusively into neighborhoods. There are no signs on the front lawn. They are well cared for, with the same sprinkling of dandelions as the rest of the neighborhood.
"The untrained eye wouldn't see them," said Bruce A. Shields, president and chief executive officer of Niagara County's Opportunities Unlimited.
What sometimes gives them away is a large parking lot, the presence of a van and staff cars. And anyone who's paying attention will see people being picked up and dropped off on a regular basis.
Inside, what sets these homes apart are the residents -- who need guidance -- and a round-the-clock staff to provide help with major decisions as well as mundane reminders that it's time to take out the garbage.
As in any well-run household, chore charts are prominently posted and everyone pitches in with the dusting, vacuuming, cooking and cleaning up.
To track everything in a People Inc. house on Buffum Street in South Buffalo, program manager Claire Wolfram maintains separate calendars: one for activities, another for medical appointments and a third for staff events.
"The key is flexibility," she said. "And organization."
Dinner is a community event, with a staff member overseeing preparations. Residents choose the menu -- anything from pancakes to grilled salmon -- and they follow recipes that are illustrated with step-by-step drawings.
Situations that demand spontaneous responses arise continually in these houses.
One resident is told to put only one softening sheet in the dryer. Residents are gently reminded to quiet down when others are talking.
Recently, when Ms. Wolfram spotted a young woman hauling a large plastic bag filled with dirty clothes out the front door, she sent her back to fill her suitcase with clean clothes. And she told her to leave her laundry there, to be washed when she returned from her family visit.
"She was trying to con her mother into doing it," Ms. Wolfram explained.
But that's not allowed. Each resident must wash his own clothes.
"This isn't a boardinghouse or a hotel," said Ms. Wolfram. "It's a home."
Though each resident has a disabling condition, their personalities and temperaments don't fit a profile or pattern.
Some are quite outgoing, affectionate enough to hug a stranger. Others are more shy. Some are capable and confident enough to walk the neighborhood streets or to take buses to work or social events.
In some instances, they move into these homes in their early 20s, when their formal education ends. Some residents are eager to do so after seeing brothers and sisters go off to college, get married, move away.
Sometimes, though, they live with parents until they are in their 40s, 50s and even older, said Shields, of Niagara County's Opportunities Unlimited. That may work just fine while the parent is healthy, but it's traumatic when the older person becomes ill or dies and new arrangements have to be put into place quickly. Then the individual might get passed from one relative to the next, sleeping on couches until an opening at a residence arises.
"We'll get that Friday afternoon call that someone needs to be placed immediately," said Shields, who advises families to get their names on waiting lists long before they expect to need them.
In all cases, it takes time to acclimate to the change. Things go more smoothly when it's a gradual process, experts say.
"When people come in, everyone goes through a honeymoon time with the new house, the new roommate, the new location," said Shields. "That's over in one to three months. Then we go from there."
Inside, the houses look much the same as any large family house. Furnishings -- overstuffed couches and chairs -- are comfortable. Photos of residents are hung in living rooms and front hallways. Al Boswell, who lives in the Buffum Street home, is particularly proud to point out a photo of him with the late Ilio DiPaolo.
"He was my main buddy," he said of the restaurateur/wrestler. Boswell, who is often included in golf tournaments in the South Towns, is a well-known figure in the area.
Mostly, residents share bedrooms, sometimes using matching bedspreads. But the decorations are distinct and personal: Sabres posters, a picture of Bruce Lee, a velvet Elvis, stuffed animals, bowling trophies, family photos, a picture of the Sacred Heart.
Usually there's a small office, a central command post where files are kept. Also, there's a secure place for medication and a well-regulated way to administer it.
At Mill Street, a two-story house across from Glen Park in Williamsville, many of the 10 residents are milling about in the office on a Saturday midmorning. Mike Ralbovsky, who is both the program manager and the house's "Cookie Monster," is answering questions and being teased by the consumers. (New York State has assigned the term "consumers" to the residents with disabilities, but the staff, affectionately, calls them "these guys.")
When Ralbovsky checks the records of Jill Prudden, 34, to see how long she has lived there, she chides him and causes raucous laughter by saying, "Look in the file, we all know you're a Peeping Tom."
Each house has its own mood and makeup, but there's an underlying philosophy: This is home.
"If we're just meeting the regs (regulations), that's not enough," said Helen Feron, who works with residential services for the Niagara region. "I want consumers to feel happy and feel at home, to support each other in the good things and bad things that happen."
One constant is the bond that forms in the house. Staff members often call to check on residents who are sick and sometimes take them to their homes for holidays. And they frequently refer to them as "my second family."
In these houses, people work toward specific goals -- changing behavior, learning job skills or banking -- and they are constantly monitored for progress.
Donna Saracina, 35, for one, said she's learning to disregard rude comments.
"People call you names and tease you," she said. "I'm working hard to ignore them. If I have a problem at work, I walk away or I tell staff."
For those residents who have been sheltered or accustomed to following institutional orders, this freer life is a radical change.
Family members say that it's hard to let go, but they are pleased to see the growth that takes place in this new environment.
"Ann has definitely grown more than at home," Dorothy Repetski said of her daughter, Ann Marie, 30, who has lived in a Wheatfield home for 10 years and whose hobby is making latch hook rugs. "You have to be assertive with 10 in the house. She's in positions she wouldn't have been in at home. There she didn't have the companions she has now."
When Mary Purcell moved into Buffum Street, she faked seizures because she was so upset over the move, said her sister, Maureen Diggins.
Now when Ms. Purcell visits her family, she frequently calls Buffum Street her real home.
"She's afraid, we think, that someone will take her place," said her sister.
"When she moved here, she found new freedoms. She kept saying: 'I'm over 18. I can do that.' She's treated like an adult here."
When disagreements arise, as they do in most families -- over table seating arrangements, what to watch on TV, who took the biggest piece of chicken -- staff members can intervene, sometimes with a look or a rebuke. They've all been trained to prevent troubling situations and to protect themselves and others by using restraining moves.
Shields says the agencies also are prepared to handle problems.
"I can't guarantee that someone won't get into trouble," he said. "They are people with their own foibles. People make mistakes and people have achievements.
"Have we had problems? Sure. But if that happens we can change a house, work on the program, get more supervision."
Ideally, residents become assimilated into the neighborhood, as they have on Mill Street, where they have shoveled neighbors' driveways during snowstorms.
On Buffum Street, there is an annual Christmas in July party for the neighborhood. And neighbor Regina Filks often shares the bounty of her thriving garden with residents at the house.
"I'm trying to get one of the people to move into my apartment," said Mrs. Filks, who has a large house with a small apartment and is friendly with the group home residents and staff.
Another neighbor, Al Marchione, sometimes sits on the porch discussing sports with the residents.
"People think they will be trouble, but believe me, I will take them over those that there's nothing wrong with any day," said his wife, Ann Marchione. "They're wonderful people."
It amazes Dorothy Repetski of Sanborn when people protest over a proposed residence in their neighborhood.
"When anyone else moves into a neighborhood, no one checks them out," she said. "You can have some real lemons, some dangerous people, but when it comes to the handicapped, it's assumed they are a threat."
Occasionally now, in the midst of heated meetings, an advocate will testify that he has lived on the street with a group home and it has worked out just fine.
"One neighbor told me that he had been a vocal protester when we moved in and he later regretted it," said Ms. Wolfram.
Besides that, she has undeniable proof that they are an integral part of the neighborhood: "We've had people come over to borrow a cup of sugar."