Although her brief life on earth lasted only 2o years, Melissa Riggio had many dreams — and one of those dreams came true before a group of gathered friends, family members and officials with the opening of a home named in her honor on the grounds of the Somerset Hills YMCA in Basking Ridge.
The Melissa Riggio residence, a group home designed for six developmentally disabled adults built with private donations as well as public funds, was officially opened before a crowd gathered on the grounds of the sprawling ranch house at a ceremony last Friday afternoon.
Steve and Laura Riggio of Bernardsville, who had donated $1 million for the home and also very publicly put their hearts into its coming to fruition, spoke of how their late daughter had combined her awareness of having Down syndrome with her self-motivated "mission" as an advocate for people with disabilities.
Melissa, who graduated in 2007 from Bernards High School in Bernardsville, gained purpose and self-esteem at her job at the Wellness Center at the YMCA, Steve Riggio said.
Her daughter also worked with her best friend at the YMCA, Amy Margaret MacDonald to esttablish the SNAP (Special Needs Adult Program) at the YMCA, a recreational program which has continued, Laura Riggio said.
"Melissa led a life of accomplishment," said Bob Raymar, former president of the Somerset Hills YMCA Board of Directors.
The young woman, a poet who planned to attend college, also often told her parents that she dreamed of having her own home in Basking Ridge to be nearby the YMCA, her parents recalled.
Laura Riggio said that Melissa even specified she wanted the decor designed by Gregg Kiesel of New Hope, Pa., who ended up working along with decorator Jeffrey Haines of Butler's of Far Hills on the interior of the Melissa Riggio Residence.
"Throughout the last year, Laura would look up and say, 'Melissa, you have us working overtime,'" Steve Riggio said. Groundbreaking on the project was last September.
Melissa lost her life to leukemia in 2008, at a time when the YMCA already was planning the construction of the group home on property that had been donated by two local families in the mid-1990s. The Riggio's gift dovetailed with that effort.
The land donations came from the Kapsimalis and Sarantos familes, and a garden at the home was dedicated to Athena Sarantos.
The township also allocated $500,000 of dedicated funding provided by local developers to pay for affordable housing to meet state Council on Affordable Housing requirements, said Mayor John Malay, who was at the ceremony.
"It's a classic win-win situation for all involved," Malay said. The township received credit for 7.5 units of COAH housing because it is dedicated to special needs residents, he later said.
The state Department of Human Services and Somerset County also were part of the project, said Malay and others. Our House Foundation of New Providence, which manages several group homes, also is a partner in the project. Six residents from Somerset and Union counties already have been selected to occupy the bedrooms and other private areas as well as shared facilities in the home.
But Raymar said the project relied very much on the efforts of about 100 volunteers, led by township resident Tom Moschello. Moschello was chairman of the Melissa Riggio Residence Task Force, which coordinated the efforts of both volunteers and professionals.
Those volunteers are scheduled to be recognized by Gov. Chris Christie for his annual "Jefferson award," said Vicki Baum, vice-president of marketing at the YMCA.
Raymar said other assistance came from an anonymous donor who provided the funds to finish the basement as a recreation area; Rod Ryan, CEO of Open Road Auto Group, based in Bridgewater, who provided a van so residents could visit doctors as well as making recreational trips; to many smaller donations.
The YMCA's CEO, Robert Lomauro, said the group home fits in with the YMCA's goal of nurturing the potential of every child and adult.
YMCA officials, including Raymar, said the location of the home is intended to provide a link to the services provided at the facility. He and others said the project is the first group home for disabled adults to be built on any YMCA in the nation, and could serve as a model for other YMCAs.
But after the speeches, the day also turned into a chance for Charles Home, 38, of Basking Ridge, to show off the first apartment, which he is due to move into later this summer, to his parents, Linda and Jack Home.
Charles Home is employed at the Bernards Township Library despite neurological impairment, and moving out on his own has him really excited, his mother said.
He will be one of two residents who will be living in a more independent situation, while four others will require closer assistance, Baum said.
"We weren't sure it was really going to happen," Linda Home said.