Randy, Bill and Lonnie: Best Friends for More Than 20 Years
March is Developmental Disabilities Month. Many individuals with disabilities have been isolated by the pandemic, and this year, it is especially important to reaffirm our commitment to working for the inclusion of people with disabilities in community life.
The story of Lonnie, Randy and Bill, three individuals served by REM Iowa, exemplifies the promise and hope of community living for individuals with disabilities. The three men have been roommates for over 20 years—and best friends. They all joined REM Iowa’s programs within a year of each other, coming from different backgrounds and living situations, and they have been inseparable ever since.
Both Bill and Lonnie had challenging childhoods. Bill’s family sometimes experienced homelessness, and he had a hard time in school. Lonnie experienced mental health challenges that intensified at the age of 18. Both were sent to live at a large institution when they were young men. What they really needed was a home.
“It’s Like a Brotherhood”
Bill, Lonnie, and their best friend Randy found a home with REMI Iowa and with each other. “To see them together is remarkable. It’s like a brotherhood,” said REM Iowa Regional Director Sara Drish. “They all eat dinner together, play ball together, everything.”
The rapport that Randy, Bill and Lonnie have together is evident from the minute you meet them. Bill is the self-appointed group leader and “owner” of the remote control for their TV. When the weather is nice, Bill can usually be found out front in his lawn chair, waving to cars and passersby. His friendly presence is a constant in Cedar Rapids.
Lonnie is quick to make others laugh. Whether he’s shooting pool, playing softball or watching TV, Lonnie’s hearty, infectious laugh can usually be heard. No matter what life throws at him, he goes with the flow and will always find a reason to keep laughing. He loves to spend time with Randy and Bill, even if it means going to the grocery store—something Lonnie only finds fun if his friends go.
Randy is a horror movie fanatic. If you have any questions about Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees or Michael Meyers, Randy is the man with the answers. On Halloween, he goes overboard to decorate the house, even building a haunted house in the garage for trick-or-treaters. Randy also loves to collect antiques from old soda bottles to vinyl records, almost as much as he loves guessing how much he could get for them.
While they each have their own interests, they also have a lot in common. They love bowling and competed at the Special Olympics in bowling. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Randy, Lonnie and Bill went bowling every Saturday. They maintained the tradition for years, and plan to continue once the pandemic is behind them.
Every summer, they attend Camp Courageous in Monticello, Iowa. Camp Courageous is a recreational camp for individuals with special needs, and Bill, Randy and Lonnie have a blast taking part in all the activities.
With assistance from REM Iowa’s supported employment services, the three friends got jobs in housekeeping together, cleaning and maintaining local hotels beginning in the late 1990s. Randy and Bill continued to work in housekeeping until they retired. Lonnie runs his own lawn mowing service with his father. After deciding they wanted to give back to the community, the three men have also volunteered with Meals on Wheels, distributing food to people in need.
When the day program they attend shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the three friends spent a lot of quality time at home, playing games and watching movies with each other and REM Iowa staff members. They are currently attending a modified version of the day program, with games, arts and crafts and socially distanced peer interaction. Before the pandemic, their community-based day program featured daily outings to restaurants, parks, and sporting events and other activities. While these outings have been curtailed because of the pandemic, Lonnie, Bill and Randy are all looking forward to the day they can get back to their community activities.
A Constant Presence
Through all of Bill, Lonnie and Randy’s different pursuits, careers and life changes, one REM Iowa team member has remained by their side. Jeff Hessing, a Direct Support Professional (DSP) with REM Iowa, has been working with the three men for over 20 years. He has been a constant presence in their lives, giving them the support, encouragement and care they need to reach their goals and thrive in community living. Over the past two decades, staff members have come and gone, but Jeff has always been there to help the guys navigate the world and advocate for them when needed. Jeff has been offered different roles on a number of occasions, including Program Supervisor, but he believes he can best serve Randy, Bill and Lonnie by working directly with them as a DSP. His commitment to these three individuals is remarkable, and he cares deeply about their wellbeing.
A few years ago, the three friends moved to a new home, where they would be living with a fourth roommate. Having been together for so long, there was some concern about how they would react to this new presence in their home. In addition, the new roommate was nonverbal, which could present a communication barrier. However, with Jeff’s steadfast support and calming influence, Lonnie, Randy and Bill welcomed their new roommate with open arms. And their influence on the new roommate has been greatly beneficial: since moving in with them, he has become much more outgoing and communicative.
With the support of their constant caregiver Jeff, the three friends have shared a wonderful life together and continue to. Through community living, Randy, Lonnie and Bill have gotten the chance to pursue their passions and goals. Their friendship is an inspiration, and it epitomizes REM Iowa’s goal of helping individuals live life to the fullest in the communities they call home.