Whenever Dan Malone ’68 thinks back to the day his youngest son was born, two things stand out in his mind. The first is receiving the news that the child, Tim, had Down’s Syndrome. The second is receiving a powerful message from a nurse.
“When Tim was born and we realized he had special needs, a nurse came to me and said, ‘Don’t be sad. God has sent you an angel,’ and kissed me on the cheek,” he said. “That was 20 years ago and I’ve never forgot it.”
That experience – and the many things Dan and his wife Jeanne (Roth) ’69 Malone learned over the ensuing years about young adults with special needs – set the Malones on a path that ultimately led them to establish a non-profit organization, launch several businesses and create a plan for a special village to help Tim, and many other young “angels” like him.
The VSP Club
Both Dan and Jeanne are originally from Wichita. They moved to Omaha, Neb., in 1981, and for the past 25 years Dan has owned an investment real estate company called Investment Property Resources. In addition to Tim, the Malones have eight other children: daughters Shannon, 37; Janeen, 35; Kalan, 34; Molly, 32; Danna, 30; and Megan, 28; and sons Kevin, 26; and Mark, 24.
Dan said raising Tim taught him and Jeanne much about young people with special needs – especially the lack of services and activities available for them as they approach adulthood.
“We learned that in the summer these kids don’t do much,” he said. “They don’t go to dances, clubs, or other activities. They are very socially isolated.”
The Malones’ response was to create Angel Guardians, Inc., an organization dedicated to, as stated in its mission, “improve the quality of life for special-needs teens and adults in the areas of housing, employment, fitness, socialization and recreation.”
The first official act of Angel Guardians was to open the VSP (Very Special Person) Club, a recreation center for young people with cognitive or developmental disabilities. The 5,000 square-foot club, which was laid out and decorated by Jeanne, includes a workout center, a 36-seat movie theatre, a game room and a “sports bar” that serves healthy drinks and snacks. At the heart of the club is a dance center featuring a large dance floor, a spinning disco ball, and plenty of good old rock ’n’ roll.
Membership in the club is $25 a year. Dan said the club now has about 200 members from all over the city, with ages ranging from 13 to 25. The club is funded in large part by proceeds from two thrift stores called “Hand Me-Ups.”
“Dan came up with the idea as a funding source for the club, and I, with dedicated helpers, opened the first Hand Me-Ups Thrift Store,” said Jeanne, who now oversees day-to-day operations of both stores (one sells used clothing and the other used furniture) and helps develop new donation resources and awareness of the VSP Club and its mission in the community. “The stores are also work experience sites for special students from five different school districts in their high school and transition programs.”
The original thrift store is now in its fourth year, and a second furniture store is about to open. Jeanne said she expects annual revenue from the combined operations to be more than $500,000, and the stores are now generating enough income for the Malones to move forward on a plan to address another important issue for special-needs adults — housing.
‘The Silent People’
“In the Omaha area, about 2,800 special-needs kids are on a waiting list for housing,” Dan said. “About 20 got off the list last year.”
Angel Guardians has developed a plan for a living campus for young adults who need or prefer options to traditional small group homes. The organization has a conceptual plan for a 100-acre campus that would house 250 people. The campus will include several buildings in a park-like setting, with townhome-style residences that offer private bedrooms, on site supervisors, and medical personnel and caregivers for those who require it. The campus will also include ponds, tennis courts, baseball diamonds and other communal amenities.
Dan said to help finance the campus, provide skills-training to residents and avoid having to transport residents to jobs off-site, the campus will include businesses such as a greenhouse, a dog kennel and a stable.
Although he faces opposition from state agencies and other groups that favor “mainstreaming,” or integrating special-needs adults into society through group homes, Dan said the living campus is a good alternative for those not capable of mainstreaming because they lack practical skills such as the ability to tie their shoes or shave. He added that he knows the plan is ambitious, but necessary.
“About one-third of these people end up under bridges or in parents’ homes or hospitals or assisted living facilities,” he said. “And the cavalry is not coming. I don’t see it on the horizon.”
He added that other issues regarding special-needs adults are not getting the attention they deserve, because advocacy for them is not high.
“I call them ‘The Silent People,’” Dan said. “They can’t speak on their own. They’re nameless, faceless, powerless. They don’t understand their rights. The system to take care of them is underfunded. So, to tell their story and bring some kind of social justice to them is a ministry for me. We need to address these people’s problems.”
Dan has appeared before the Nebraska state Legislature to try to raise awareness and funding, but said he has made little progress.
“In Nebraska, every kid in the state is eligible for open enrollment in public schools — except special-needs kids,” he said. “I’ve given testimony to committees, and they respond, ‘Huh? We didn’t know this.’ But it’s difficult to change the status quo.”
Despite the obstacles, Dan and Jeanne believe Angel Guardians’ efforts are helping, and they remain optimistic. Dan has had interest from other cities in his living campus plan, and believes when it becomes operational others will replicate it. The organization is also gaining support through fundraisers and special events to educate the public, and has received some media coverage and increased traffic at the thrift stores as more people learn about Angel Guardians’ mission.
While in many ways Angel Guardians is still planting seeds of awareness about the issues facing special-needs adults, the Malones believe those seeds will make a difference – just as they did for them as students.
“My experience at Sacred Heart encouraged us to be ‘people for others,’” Jeanne said. “We’ve tried to live to that end.”
“The Sisters taught me that a society should be judged by how well it takes care of those who can’t take care of themselves,” Dan added. “I think the seeds of service to others and social justice get planted there. I believe this is my ministry. This is what I can do best and what I can bring to my little part of the world. And we’re not done yet.”