ROGERS PARK — After living in a group home for people with disabilities for half a decade, 52-year-old Rogers Park resident Florence O'Donnell now lives an independent life she never thought possible.
Through Envision Unlimited, an organization that helps people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, "Flo" was able to move out of the group home and buy her own lakefront condo on Jarvis Avenue. And as of last month, she has paid off her mortgage and owns the home outright — a luxury many in her situation never get to experience.
"It's great. ... It's peaceful," O'Donnell said. "I do just about everything on my own."
O'Donnell is one of about 1,000 clients whose lives have improved greatly with help each year from Envision Unlimited, which is holding its annual fundraiser later this month.
The Bright Futures Ball on April 29 will be held at The Palmer House and all proceeds go to help the charity. Tickets are $300. Last year, the event raised more than $315,000 with more than 500 attendees.
Highlights of the event include dinner and cocktails, both live and silent auctions, presentation of a Lifetime Achievement Award and dancing to orchestral music.
Money raised goes back toward Envision Unlimited's programming, which helps clients like O'Donnell.
Donna Ennis, a director with Envision Unlimited, said O'Donnell's success not only benefits her by giving her the freedom to make her own life choices, but also strengthens the entire community.
"It's providing individuals with choices, with community integration, with opportunities," Ennis said. "But also it just makes our community stronger to be inclusive. Everybody's got strengths, everybody's got abilities, you know we're all dependent on each other — sort of like no man is an island."
O'Donnell's story with Envision Unlimited began about 25 years ago, when she moved into Deborah House to help her with her physical and mental disabilities. The home had about 30 residents in Rogers Park.
She lived there for about five years until Envision Unlimited changed its housing model and moved residents into either full-time care facilities, or, if possible, more independent living situations with intermittent care and check-ins with the organization's caseworkers.
But O'Donnell, who had stashed away significant savings from former jobs and other means, was able to work with the organization to do something unique among her peers: buy a studio condo a half a block from Lake Michigan.
Though not every Envision Unlimited client is able to afford actually buying a property of his or her own, today there are about 15 other clients living solo on the Far North Side through the organization, Ennis said.
Now, about 20 years after first buying it, Flo fully owns her own home.
"I saved my money. ... [It] feels good," O'Donnell said. "I can come and go as I want without signing out."
Had it not been for her experience at Deborah House, where she learned to cook, manage money, grocery shop and do other daily life tasks independently, O'Donnell said she'd have a tougher time on her own today.
O'Donnell gets help intermittently from her caseworker, Bettye Dorsey, when the two meet up at Envision Unlimited's south Andersonville office, at O'Donnell's condo or out in the community.
And, she's "still learning," she said — although now she, too, gets calls from friends who could use some help or advice of their own.
"I'm still getting help with my needs. ... I'm still learning," O'Donnell said. "They make sure I have my meds all updated, make sure my home is OK."
When she's not working her food service job or hanging out with friends, O'Donnell said she likes to spend as much time at the lake as possible.
She partakes in activities through the park district, goes for walks, has picnics and whatever else strikes her fancy.
That level of autonomy is exactly what Envision Unlimited is going for, Ennis said.
"It's really showcasing to the individuals that we have worked with for years, the sky is the limit for a lot of people," she said.