Beaufort County is expanding its residential program for people with developmental disabilities to two houses in Bluffton.
The homes, one in Lawton Station and another in Pinecrest, will serve four people each and are the Disabilities and Special Needs Department's first residences in southern Beaufort County, director Mitzi Wagner said.
The residential setting gives those with special needs direct support from department staff that they might not otherwise have, and helps immerse them in a community, said Lois Park Mole, spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Disabilities and Special Needs.
The county has a waiting list of 54 people in the Bluffton and Hilton Head Island areas who qualify for the residential services.
"We're really, really excited," Wagner said. "We have no residential facilities south of the Broad (River) so far, so it's a tremendous help to have a capacity to meet some of those needs."
Over the next several months, Wagner's staff will meet with the families of each person on the waiting list to identify the eight people with the most critical needs. Those with elderly or sick caretakers, or those who receive little to no care at home will receive top priority, she said.
The four-bedroom, two-bathroom homes -- which cost about $280,000 each and will undergo minor improvements to ensure they comply with federal disabilities rules -- have fire sprinkler systems and include a lockable office for health records, Wagner said. County Council unanimously approved their purchases Aug. 23.
The homes will be paid for with state grants and savings the department has accrued over six years by cutting costs, Wagner said. Most of the operating costs will be paid for through the federal Medicaid program.
The county currently serves 35 people with disabilities in residential services in northern Beaufort County. It has five, four-bedroom homes and a 15-bed community facility there, Wagner said.
The county considered devloping two residential programs in Bluffton six years ago, but the opportunity fell apart in 2008 as the economy tumbled, Wagner said. Severe, immediate budget cuts forced the state program to freeze homes that participants hadn't yet moved into, which left out eight Beaufort County families, Wagner and Park Mole said.
"We disappointed them tremendously," Wagner said. "We had built their hopes up, and to have to face those families and say, 'I have nothing to offer you,' was devastating."
Wagner hopes to have the homes occupied by next spring.
The homes are part of a statewide effort to expand programs for people with disabilities.
This year state legislators approved a $13.7 million infusion to the state department of disabilities to help more than 6,550 people on a waiting list get in residential and day programs, Park Mole said. About 185 of them live in Beaufort County.
Many of those still waiting for homes will participate in the county's growing day program, which currently offers about 140 people with disabilities a chance to socialize and work on a variety of daily skills, Wagner said.
"Moving forward now is a wonderful thing," Park Mole said, "but I think a lot of people would say, 'It's been a long time coming.'"
Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.