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State official to tour assisted living facility
The chairman of the board overseeing a state agency that wants to close Harpers Joy will tour the assisted living facility for 22 mentally disabled residents within the next two weeks.

State Rep. Alex Atwood, R-St. Simons Island, said he convinced Don Cole, chairman of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, to tour the facility in Brunswick to see why so many city residents want Harpers Joy to remain open.

If Cole leaves with a positive impression, Atwood said it could reverse the state's decision to close the facility at the old Brunswick hospital at 519 Norwich St.

"I told him I want it to stay open," Atwood said. "I'm optimistic."

Atwood said Cole is very supportive of facilities where residents make many of their own decisions.

The state announced plans in May to close Harpers Joy, saying the facility is too much like an institution. The state wants the residents to live in facilities where no more than 49 percent of the occupants have mental disabilities, as a way to mainstream them into society.

The announcement sparked protests by residents' family members, who appreciate the care provided by Gateway Behavioral Services.

They like the comfortable, three-room apartments and staff that helps residents with medications, housekeeping, cooking meals, transportation and activities such as bowling, movies and shopping.

Family members say their loved ones will not receive the close attention and care provided by staff of they are forced to move, and many long-standing friendships among residents will be jeopardized.

Staff at the facility say residents make many decisions regarding their day-to-day lives, including how they spend their own money, what meals they eat and what they do in their free time.

The planned closure has also upset county residents who are in the midst of a petition drive to keep the facility open.

Richard Ulrich of Brunswick says 153 petitions have been circulated, including at area businesses. He says the vast majority of people he approached signed the petition after learning about the state's plans.

"There is a lot of knowledge about this in the community," said Ulrich, who has no family connection to the facility. "I'm normally reluctant to sign petitions. We haven't seen people reluctant to sign this. Most people I've talked to say this doesn't make sense."

Atwood said the petition drive and citizen support will help compel state officials to seriously consider reversing their decision.

"I like to see people petition our government," he said. "I think it's helpful."

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