Cassi Bales, 32, rides her bicycle outside a new apartment complex - a place she proudly calls home.

"It's really good," she said.

She was one of the first residents to move into the single-occupancy units in April.

Nine residents live at Gulf Bend Center's Wellness Community, and three more people are expected to move in later this month.

The 32-unit apartment community is tucked into a quiet neighborhood near Patti Welder Middle School.

Each one-bedroom apartment is furnished and designed to be fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The rent is $650, all-bills-paid, and includes phone and Wi-Fi services.

In the center of the complex is a fruit, herb and vegetable garden. Classes are offered to show residents how to cook with the fresh ingredients and how to maintain the garden, which was donated by a local landscaping company.

Nearby is a covered area with two charcoal barbecue pits and chairs where residents can relax.

Situated in front of the complex is a city bus stop.

"That's one of the primary means of transportation for many of our residents," said manager Tiffany Seiler.

Bales, however, uses her bicycle for her six-mile commute to work as a cashier at the Wal-Mart Supercenter on North Navarro Street.

"The gas mileage is great," she said with a smile.

Her plan is to stay at the Wellness Community for one year while she saves up for an apartment and vehicle.

Bales has Asperger's syndrome, which is considered to be on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. She said she enjoys making new friends with her neighbors.

Known throughout the complex for her exceptional origami and crochet skills, she loves the social activities organized by the staff.

"We need more of that," she said.

Recently, the staff hosted a pancake breakfast for the residents.

Bales said another benefit is she feels safer.

She was a resident of Gulf Bend's transitional housing program before moving to the complex, but before that, she lived with family.

She used to fear her home would be burglarized and had anxiety about living in crime-prone areas.

"I'm around people that I know, and I know the staff," she said.

The Wellness Community is staffed 24 hours a day.

What makes the community unique, Seiler said, is it was created as an independent living facility for those receiving Gulf Bend services and are diagnosed with chronic mental and physical conditions.

Mental illness could include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression.

Physical conditions include diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and chronic pulmonary obstructive disorder or those who are at-risk.

Gulf Bend Center for more than 43 years has been the largest provider of mental health and intellectual and developmental services and support in the Crossroads.

Seiler said the staff encourages residents to work or volunteer in the community because illness tends to cause isolation.

"It's healthy to get out of the house and interact with others," she said.

Seiler said one resident was hesitant to leave home, but they asked him to try volunteering at Christ's Kitchen just for just one day.

Now, he spends most of his week serving meals to the community's hungry.

Seiler said the staff strives to promote a healthy lifestyle for its residents to increase their overall wellness and quality of life.

Caseworkers check in with residents as needed and assess needs while staff can offer one-on-one training with chores at home.

"Many of our residents have never had the responsibility of maintaining their own place," she said.

The hope is that by providing a therapeutic residential setting, Gulf Bend could target the medical, social, behavioral and environmental factors that impair an individual, said Jessica Dodds, a spokeswoman for Gulf Bend.

The Wellness Community was a project spearheaded by retired executive director Don Polzin, who is still actively fundraising for the project.

The cost of the complex, including construction, is $4.15 million, and so far Gulf Bend has raised almost $3 million from public and private sources.

"We still have about $1 million to raise for the Wellness Community," Polzin said. "There have been a lot of folks in the community who have made this possible."

Polzin said it all started with two major contributions, one from the city of Victoria and another from the M.G. and Lillie A. Johnson Foundation, which gave the center leverage to raise more.

"From there, it began to grow," he said.

The list of contributors includes Ralph and Beall Emmord Family Trust, the Meadows Foundation, H-E-B, Inteplast Group and many individuals.

Polzin said the capital campaign continues through the end of the year. He hopes to raise the remaining balance to avoid financing the Wellness Community.

"It's just getting started. It's going to make a big difference in a lot of folks' lives," he said. "It's important to our community."

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Features Editor

Laura has covered health and nonprofits in the Crossroads since 2014. She's also mom to a toddler, loves journalism conferences and is a big fan of sci-fi and crime TV.

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