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Brandon's New Horizons looks to provide for more special needs adults

BRANDON — Peter Watkins remembers back to the early 1990s, when the idea to establish a home in the community for developmentally challenged adults was being tossed around by him and a handful of fellow church members at First Baptist Church Brandon.

Like other parents with special needs children, he and his wife, Brenda, wondered and worried what would happen to their daughter Kimberly, a 42-year-old with Down syndrome, if one or both of them became disabled or died.

Even though she has a younger brother, they didn't want to place the burden on him.

"We didn't have a clue," Peter said. "All we knew is we wanted a place where our sons and daughters would be taken care of."

Fast-forward to 1999, when after much hard work and the efforts of many — including Mary Lou Creamer and Alice Storms, who then led a ministry at the church for people with special needs — the first residence of the New Horizons Group Homes, at 109 E Clay Ave. in Brandon, opened its doors to six women.

Aptly, the Christian-based assisted-living residence — which accepts people of all faiths — was named in Creamer's honor, and a second home, opened on the property in 2002 for an equal number of men, bears the name Alice Storms Home.

Kimberly, who works part time at Publix on State Road 60 in Brandon, was among the first residents in the women's home.

"She loves it," Brenda said. "It give us peace of mind, too, in that when we're gone she'll be taken care of."

Half of the residents have jobs, two are retired and the remainder participate in day programs for the mentally challenged. Transportation to and from those sites as well as to the many planned activities throughout the year is furnished via two New Horizon Group Homes vans.

"When you walk in you can see that they are happy being here. It's a family and they really consider it their home," added Brenda, who noted that each home is staffed with 24/7 caregivers to assist residents with daily needs and handle emergencies should they arise.

"If you go to other group homes, you'll find more of an institutional setting unlike New Horizons, which are actual homes with a family-like atmosphere," said Peter, who has served as the nonprofit organization's president since 2002.

The homes have received so much positive attention throughout the Tampa Bay community that there is a waiting list of people wanting to move in.

So, thanks to a $400,000 grant from Hillsborough County, a third 3,000-square-foot residence is being built on the site and is expected to be finished by year's end.

It will contain six bedrooms and five bathrooms to accommodate six new male residents, and it will be named the Peter and Brenda Watkins Home, in recognition of the couple's longtime dedication toward the organization's undeniable success.

An additional $48,000 has been raised to cover the total costs of the building, but there remains a need for an extra $80,000 for furnishings, landscaping and other household items.

For that reason, board members are counting on people throughout the community and beyond to support New Horizons' 21st annual barbecue and eighth annual silent auction, from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday (Sept. 24) at Central Baptist Christian School, 402 E Windhorst Road in Brandon.

"I've been to every one of the barbecues," said Paul Urevich, a retired University of South Florida police chief and former New Horizons board vice president, a position he held for 15 years.

"I've always had a special place in my heart for this population, and it's been very rewarding to be involved with this," he added.

Steve Stoner, the board treasurer, also has a vested interest in New Horizons, His 33-year-old daughter Kerri — who during heart surgery at the age of 2 suffered a stroke that resulted in learning disabilities — is a resident in the women's home and works two hours a day at a local McDonald's.

"She has a quality of life there my wife and I couldn't imagine," Stone said, noting that while his job necessitated the couple move from their Brandon home a few years ago to Oviedo near Orlando, he has no qualms about traveling back and forth to visit his daughter and attend board meetings.

"A peace and a sense of calm comes over me when I enter that house," he said. "This is the perfect place for her to be."

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