autism casa familia

Advocating for adults with intellectual disabilities

By Deserae E. del Campo

Advocating for adults with intellectual disabilities

By Deserae E. del Campo
Alumna Marie-Ilene Whitehurst, A.B. ’74, is co-founder of Casa Familia, a local organization advocating for affordable housing for adults with intellectual disabilities.

Marie-Ilene Whitehurst, ’74, is co-founder and 1st vice president of Casa Familia, a local organization supporting and advocating for the development of affordable housing for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) in an enriched community setting.

Whitehurst’s son was diagnosed with autism over 26 years ago, and since, she has spearheaded and founded numerous community events and programs to raise funds and increase awareness for individuals with disabilities in Miami-Dade County. A few of her notable accolades include the Autism Speaks-Miami Chapter Community Leadership Award, the Junior League of Miami “Women Who Make a Difference” Award, and the American Red Cross Spectrum Award for Women, just to name a few.

whitehurstWhitehurst was a founding member of the board of the Miami-Dade Chapter of the Autism Society of America and was instrumental in creating sports programs for children with autism. She also served six years on the University of Miami Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD) Parent Constituency Board Committee and served as co-chair of the inaugural Tropical Nights, the organization’s major annual fundraising event. 

A&S News had a chance to connect with Whitehurst to learn more about Casa Familia’s next big project and her life’s mission to build better lives for families with IDD.  

A&S News: How did the University of Miami shape you?

Whitehurst: I transferred to UM from a very small women’s college in New York, and I remember being so impressed by the incredible diversity at the University, from the student body makeup to the depth of course options, especially within my majors in Spanish and Latin American Studies. The classes were both interesting and challenging, and the quality of the professors was outstanding.

A&S News: As co-founder of Casa Familia, you are very instrumental in community awareness and outreach for children and families with autism. What have you learned in regard to support and assistance for those in need? 

Whitehurst: There is a special bond among families who have children with special needs. We understand the unique challenges faced by all of our families and try to lend support to each other as we advocate for our children. When my son, Thomas, was diagnosed in 1994 the only community agency that I found was the UM-NSU CARD—and thank goodness for them! They have offered our family a huge level of support over the years, which continues to this day. There are certainly many more organizations available to families that offer educational, healthcare, therapeutic, and recreational options than there were 26 years ago, but there continues to be a strong need for increased services and resources, especially given the growing number of adults in this population.

A&S News: Tell us about Casa Familia’s next big project?

Whitehurst: Absolutely! The Village of Casa Familia will be a first-of-its-kind residential community for adults with IDD in South Florida. Through the generous support of Miami-Dade County, we are located on nearly nine acres in the Kendall area. Construction is expected to begin in Spring 2021 and Phase I should be ready for occupancy by Summer 2022.

The Village will have 36 one-bedroom/one-bath and 12 two-bedroom/2-bath apartments spanning two residential buildings. There will also be two apartments for on-site staff. The centerpiece of the Village will an 11,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art community center with an art studio and gallery, fitness center, Internet café, game room, movie theater, on-site dining, demonstration kitchen, and large multipurpose room, as well as administrative offices. There will be an Olympic size swimming pool, walking paths, basketball court, and a sensory garden too!

We have established collaborations with Special Olympics and Best Buddies, for example, and will encourage partnerships with the South Florida community at large. Residents will either work, attend day programs, or volunteer, and in general, be fully engaged in the greater community. 

Casa Familia is partnering with two highly respected names in housing and social services spaces: Atlantic/Pacific Communities, our developer, and UCO of Miami (formerly the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Miami). We expect that Phase II will be small patio homes connected by common areas and will serve about 24 adults who require a much higher level of support. 

We are extremely fortunate to have an outstanding Board of Directors, led by our chair, Marc Plonskier, a veteran affordable housing developer, and a diverse group of community leaders and professionals who have a passion to ensure that individuals with IDD have the opportunity to live self-determined, fulfilled lives in a community of their choosing. 

A&S News: Do you have any new endeavors on the horizon? 

Whitehurst: Actually, I feel that Casa Familia is my life’s mission. Even though my husband, Tom, and I have tried to address each of the individual challenges that our son has faced every step of the way in his life, we realized that the key final piece was to ensure a successful future for him as an adult. While his older sister will always be an important part of his support system, he is non-verbal and significantly impacted by his autism, so we wanted a place for him to live once we are no longer around that can provide the level of oversight and care that he needs, within a safe and enriching community-oriented environment. For families such as ours, the peace of mind that the Village of Casa Familia will provide is beyond measure. 

A&S News: Who are your mentors? 

Whitehurst: Probably my parents, who instilled in me the importance of always helping others and giving back to those less fortunate. They were both people of great faith and dedication, and these ideals played a huge part in shaping my brother’s and my upbringing—and my identity to this day.

For more information about Casa Familia, visit their website: https://casafamiliainc.org/.