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Ray Johnson on Shared Living: "A Family Affair" Part 2

Read part 1 of Ray Johnson’s shared living journey here.

Three years after starting his life with Frank, Ray added Robert O’Donnell to the mix. Their story began when a neighbor who Ray did respite work for (and who lived with Robert) moved to Germany. In what was supposed to be a temporary situation, Robert moved in with Ray, joining him and Frank. More than twenty years later, they continue to live together; as Ray puts it, “He came for relief and never left.”

Robert’s mother, Sarah, served as Chairwoman of the Board during the critical years when Nonotuck was closing group homes and moving fully to shared living. Robert's sister has served on the board as well. While Frankie had no involvement with his family, Robert’s family called every night. “{Initially}, this was a place to stay, and when he visited his family, he was home,” Ray says. “We’re closer now that he’s older.” Robert still maintains close bonds with his family, regularly visiting his childhood home for weekends and holidays.

Robert is, as Ray puts it, a “collector.” “If he was living on his own, he would be a hoarder,” he jokes. Rotary phones, hubcaps,  toy horses, and art books are among his passions. An artist himself, Robert was known to visit numerous art museums with his mother, who taught art in Northampton public schools for many years.

When Ray began shared living, he had an additional consideration to ponder. An openly gay man, Ray feared Frankie and Robert wouldn’t understand his lifestyle. This fear was quickly put to rest, with both Robert and Frankie being understanding and supportive. When Ray broke up with his partner of twenty five years, it was Frankie who comforted him. “I remember crying and Frankie coming to me and saying ‘Everything is going to be alright. You lost Dean, but who’s going to be your partner now? You’ll be happy again,’” Ray recalls. 

“I was overwhelmed that he learned to understand, he didn't  judge, or anything like that. Same thing with Robert,” Ray says. 

Both Robert and Frankie shared a home with Ray, his partner, and the pair’s adopted son for many years. Today, he lives with a new partner, Robert.  After thirty years, Ray encourages shared living providers to go into shared living “wholeheartedly,” adding: “You have to evolve and grow with them. You can’t just come in and do what you want. You have to do a little changing, they have to do a little changing. When you share your lives together it’s a give and take.”

Ultimately, he says: “You won’t believe how rewarding it is.”

“(Through shared living) people with a disability experience a real transformation and discover confidence in themselves; they discover their capacity to make choices, and also find a certain liberty and above all their dignity as human beings.”

Caregiving with Love:
Guide for Shared Living Providers

Learn how Nonotuck developed a love-based ideology of care. We started our shared living program as an alternative to group homes for people with disabilities. Instead, Shared Living creates genuine life transformation for people with disabilities, as well as families and communities. The true power of caregiving is found through hospitality, authenticity, and love.

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