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Facility celebrates doors staying open
Carol Johnson could not stop dancing Friday on the lawn near her brother's apartment at Harpers Joy at 519 Norwich St.

Her good mood, along with the nearly 100 people in attendance at Harpers Joy Appreciation Day, was a celebration of the successful effort to keep the assisted living facility for 21 mentally disabled residents open after the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities had decided to close it.

Had the facility been closed, the residents would have been moved elsewhere, something Johnson did not want to happen.

"I'm elated," Johnson said as she danced with her 75-year-old brother, John Guarnieri, a resident of the facility. "We fought this big impersonal machine (in the state government) and we won."

She joined forces with Dick and Pauline Ulrich, a couple who circulated petitions in the community to try to keep the facility off the chopping block.

Dick Ulrich said more than 2,400 people signed the petitions that were sent to Gov. Nathan Deal.

Ulrich applauded the efforts of politicians like state Rep. Alex Atwood, R-St. Simons Island, and Mayor Bryan Thompson for supporting the cause.

"We had nothing to lose," Ulrich said. "The politicians were courageous to stick out their necks for us. And the residents had their homes on the line."

Ulrich surveyed the scene Friday as residents, their families and workers at the facility danced to music in the sun and ate hot dogs, popcorn and cotton candy.

"The original decision to close was a terrible mistake," Ulrich said. With a deep sigh he added, "I feel a sense of relief."

Frank Bonati, chief executive of Gateway Behavioral Services, manager of the facility, said he has never seen such a strong showing of support from a community during his 40 years in the mental health field.

"It is such a tremendous victory for everyone involved," Bonati said.

The celebration was especially sweet for Guarnieri, who took the opportunity to enjoy a beautiful afternoon with his sister.

After having a difficult time living on his own for several years, Johnson moved Guarnieri to Harpers Joy in 2008. For the last four years, he has lived comfortably in his three-room apartment with the help of staff.

Losing Harpers Joy would have been devastating for him for one simple reason: "I like it here," Guarnieri said.

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