A giant red stuffed heart sits atop the bed at Jon and Dahlia Chernov-Wing’s apartment in Napa. It was a Valentine’s Day gift a year ago for his “lady,” as Jon calls his wife.
Numerous framed photos of the two and their families are on display inside their downtown home. One, hung in the middle of their living room, features their wedding invitation and a formal portrait. Whether holding hands, planning dinner after work, or trying to remember the exact date they met 20 years ago, they seem like any other married couple.
There’s just one difference: Jon and Dahlia were born with Down syndrome. The two 43-year-olds live in a low-income housing apartment building, where a personal assistant visits daily to help them manage their afternoon routines.
It’s safe to say that Jon Wing is a romantic.
“We’ve been married for more than 16 years,” he announced proudly. “She’s the most wonderful lady I ever met,” he said, dropping to one knee to re-enact his proposal. After watching others in his family get married, “it was my turn,” he said. Not to mention, “I wanted to wear a tuxedo.”
These Napans first met in 1993 at a local group home, Dahlia said. Recalling seeing the younger Dahlia, who was dressed up that day, “My eyes blew up,” Jon said, opening them wide to demonstrate.
“I was shy back then,” Jon said. But you wouldn’t believe it talking to him today. Outgoing and personable, Jon proudly showed off their tidy two-bedroom unit, complete with office/craft room.
Movies are a particular favorite — everything from James Bond and Star Wars films to current releases. They each have their own TV, Jon explained, because Dahlia doesn’t like watching scary movies. “They give her nightmares,” he said.
In their kitchen, meal planning and grocery list items are carefully noted on a calendar and notepad. This helps keep Dahlia, in particular, on track when it comes to what’s for dinner each night, explained Bonnie Wallace, the couple’s personal assistant.
Wallace works for Aldea Children & Family Services. The North Bay Regional Center, a nonprofit that coordinates services for people with disabilities, contracts with Aldea to provide services for clients such as Jon and Dahlia.
Wallace visits the Wings’ home in the afternoons five days a week, usually after the two get home from work, she said. Jon does janitorial work at Napa Sanitation District, and Dahlia is on a cleaning crew with Napa Personnel Services.
One of the tasks Wallace assists with is meals. During her shift last Wednesday afternoon, Wallace asked Dahlia if she wanted to begin cooking dinner.
With Wallace offering guidance as needed, Dahlia began to prepare their evening meal. The assistant suggested a different-sized container for cooking a rice dish, but Dahlia did all the work, dropping a bit of butter into the pan to start the recipe. Two hamburger patties were also grilled in a frying pan. For safety reasons, knobs of the stove are removed when she’s not cooking, Wallace said.
“She’s a good cook,” Jon said of Dahlia. Spaghetti is one of their favorite meals, they both said. Sometimes, they’ll go out to dinner at a local restaurant like the Black Bear Diner.
As Dahlia prepared two plates for dinner, she showed Wallace some leftover rice in the pot. Scoop it out onto another plate, Wallace suggested, but use a clean spoon first.
“Do you want some fruit too?” she asked Dahlia, noting the rice and hamburger.
While Dahlia cooked, Jon talked about their families and showed off photos of nieces and nephews on his iPhone.
The two were married when they were in their late 20s. Asked if they ever considered having a family, Dahlia shook her head.
“My parents said ‘no,’” she said.
“I never could take care of (a baby),” Jon said matter-of-factly.
Neither of their parents live in Napa, Wallace said, but they maintain regular contact.
The couple seems engaged and busy with life in Napa. On weekends or after work, “we hang around, and get ready for work the next day,” Jon said. They also like to go to dances and bingo games, some held at the senior center. Dahlia likes going to a math class, she said.
The two have faced some challenges during their relationship, Jon said. In 1996, Dahlia was hit by a car on Lincoln Avenue in Napa. Badly injured, she was hospitalized for several months. Dahlia had to learn how to walk and become fully functioning again.
“I was with her the whole time,” Jon said of her recovery.
Wallace said she has been working with the Wings for more than 14 years, helping them with shopping, cooking and other daily chores.
“They’re like my kids,” she said. “We’re like a little family.”
The couple sometimes jokingly call her “mom,” especially because Wallace has the same first name as Jon’s mother.
The two are different from most people “in different ways, but they get up and go to work like I do,” said Wallace, who added she finds the couple inspirational.
“They have a wonderful marriage,” Wallace said. “I look at them and think, ‘That’s true love.’”
Some may believe that a Jon and a Dahlia couldn’t live on their own, she said. “These guys are living proof they can. They do pretty darn good. They’re smarter than people think they are.”
As recently as 40 years ago, individuals with developmental disabilities would have led segregated lives from their communities, said Pamela Madden-Krall, training and information projects manager with North Bay Regional Center.
“For centuries, people were locked away in institutions, if they were allowed to live at all,” she said. “It’s a relatively new idea that people with disabilities should and could live and work in their communities just like everybody else.”
Besides the obvious benefits for clients, providing alternatives to institutions also presents significant cost savings to taxpayers.
It can cost the state up to $300,000 a year to care for someone in an institution such as the Sonoma Developmental Center, compared to an average of $30,000 a year to provide support and services for people living in the community like Jon and Dahlia, Madden-Krall noted.
North Bay Regional Center, which contracts with the state Department of Developmental Services, is working with more than 1,000 individuals in Napa County, she said. But there are fewer than a handful of married couples like Jon and Dahlia.
“The very idea that an individual with disabilities would have the right to make their own choice about living together and living on their own — it takes a lot to overcome,” for both the parents of those individuals and society as a whole, Madden-Krall said.
“We’re slow as a society to catch up with the idea,” she said. “It’s one thing to have a law in place; it’s another for people to culturally accept and value all kinds of people making their own choices, and to respect those choices.”