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Life for Luke Gallo has never been easy. Diagnosed with autism and other developmental disabilities, he faced a new hardship at 13 when he lost his mother. When he was 14, he was placed in a residence in Nassau County with housemates in their 20s. Gallo lacked family support and his life at the residence felt out of control. He struggled academically and was expelled from three different programs due to aggressive behavior.

In March 2019, YAI entered into a management contract with the residence’s former provider, which meant YAI had the opportunity to work to address the residence’s 87 open incidents and bring much-needed stability to the program. Within eight months of starting the management agreement, YAI was granted a change of auspice. That meant the residence was fully under YAI’s control, and the culture was going to change.

"The auspice change was a really great experience. A lot of work, but it was incredible,” said Victor Connolly, Regional Deputy Director of Long Island. “It was a really challenging program. We were audited about six times in the first year we were there. And the very first audit that we had under the management contract was the first deficiency-free audit the residence had in 10 years. That was a huge tip of the hat to the team there.”

Connolly and the rest of the YAI team were working around the clock to address a backlog of paperwork and preexisting problems in the house. At the same time, because of Gallo’s record of multiple expulsions, his school district was pushing for him to join a residential school.

“Normally I would have jumped at an opportunity to move Luke because he was literally misplaced with a bunch of adults. But the other residents were the only people in his life that were like family,” said Connolly. “They were all older brothers to him. So, we fought with the school district to let him stay in the program.”

A National Core Indicators study showed that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) with friendships outside of their family and staff members, experience “greater well-being and desired outcomes” than people who feel more isolated. This includes lower rates of diagnoses of mental health and behavioral challenges.

Chris and Luke sit together on bed
Luke (right) sits in his room with his housemate, Chris Blanco (left).

For the first time in his life, Gallo had a sense of stability and a group of people that were willing to bet on him—and the gamble paid off. Gallo who is now 20, has come a long way since YAI first stepped in five years ago.

“We weren’t sure how it was going to work out, but Luke ended up on the honor roll,” said Connolly. “The school couldn’t say enough amazing things about him.”

Meanwhile, after the change of auspice, YAI was changing the structure of the home from a residential model where everyone got the same care to a model where the focus is on each person's individual needs.

As part of this change, the residence was also looking to relocate to a new space that could better meet the needs of all the residents. Then the pandemic hit and the search for a new home became grueling—YAI viewed more than 25 houses. However, when the right home was found, Gallo and his fellow residents were involved with the renovation and moving process every step of the way. They met the contractors, picked out the siding for the house, chose the furniture, and helped make every major decision for the new space. After lots of hard work, in August 2023, the group relocated to their new home in Babylon.

“It was kind of an emotional feeling,” Gallo said about the move. “I was nervous. But I got my own room with Star Wars decorations of Darth Vader and the Death Star.”

6 men stand in front of a blue house with a "welcome home" sign on the grass in front of them.
Gallo and his housemates stand outside their new home

That meant Gallo, who was finally flourishing in school and at home, was going to have another large transition. He had to move, and he had to find a new school. However, with the support of his fellow housemates and the staff at his program, Gallo made the transition smoothly.

In addition to enjoying his new school, he’s started a job training program involving volunteer work at the Mariott Hotel. He's found ways to manage his behavior with fidget toys and support from staff. Thanks to these techniques and therapy, his behavioral challenges have mostly vanished.

“I get a little antsy sometimes,” Gallo said. “I just do something to relax me.”

For Connolly, watching Gallo rise to each new challenge is a testament not only to Gallo himself, but also to the staff who helped advocate for him every step of the way.

“I think it was stability and empathy. We had to work with Luke a little differently than the others in the house. We had some people that were working on person-centered adult goals. And then we had this child who liked working with Star Wars toys. And we managed to do both in the program.”

For Gallo, his own goals have shifted as he’s grown. Although he’s still not sure what he wants to pursue when he graduates, he will face it with a positive attitude.

“I don’t know what I want to do, but I’ll try to do my best,” he said.