News & Events>The Cottage in Darien, Connecticut: Turning an Idea into a Home
The adage “It takes a village to raise a child” is commonly heard when conversation turns to a community’s role in a child’s development. Yet for a group of parents with developmentally disabled adult children in Connecticut it sometimes takes a special child to raise up a whole community.
To fully appreciate the efforts of Barbara Linden, Doug Milne and the other four participating families, one needs to go back about 10 years. The group had gathered for an informal meeting, united by both circumstances and concerns; each parent had an adult child with developmental disabilities and no clear solution to care for that child once they themselves became incapacitated.
Mr. Milne, to some extent, could see the writing on the wall. He had already registered his daughter, Ashley, for housing with the Department of Mental Retardation in Connecticut some two years earlier. At that time Ashley was given a waiting list number of around 1,400. But when Mr. Milne periodically checked the list to see his daughter’s status, he was disheartened to find that there really was no change.
“The fear that we all had is what is going to happen to these young people when we are no longer able to take care of them,” Mr. Milne explained. “We came to the conclusion that it was much better for everyone – but particularly our children – if we could transition them when they were young enough to identify that this is going to be their life and this is going to be their home, as opposed to me in a nursing home trying to move a 58-year-old woman into a facility where she doesn’t know anyone and is uncomfortable.”
“It became clear to us that if we didn’t take the bull by the horns and try to do it ourselves, it wasn’t going to happen,” he added. “It would become a self fulfilling prophesy that they weren’t going to get off the waiting list.”
Fortified by each other, the parent group opted to confront the challenge head-on and began strategizing next steps. At the top of their “to-do” list was the search for land that was affordable and accessible to public transportation and local shopping. The group needed to research staffing and management of the group home, and to also find financial support to cover ongoing expenses.
The group’s research on agencies serving the developmentally disabled yielded the Corporation for Independent Living, a Connecticut-based nonprofit skilled in development of residential-based supportive housing. CIL would later serve as consultants on the Darien project, guiding the parent group on building and service requirements unique to special needs residents.
The most challenging issue was clearly the land, Mr. Milne explained and no matter how the group calculated the total development costs, the project just would not work without a donation of land. The parents then decided to test an idea: would the Town of Darien be open to leasing a parcel of land that could be used to construct a new group home?
At first try, the idea fell flat. Yet the parents were not deflated. They let the idea simmer a bit more and rekindled the concept about three years ago following elections that re-configured the town’s Board of Selectmen. The group also focused energy on speaking in public forums, sharing wherever possible the special needs of these developmentally disabled young people and an unforgiving state waiting list for group housing.
“We spent a lot of time with the neighbors trying to get them to understand,” said Mr. Milne. “These are not threatening people. These are not people who will harm your children. Most of the residents have Down syndrome; my daughter has cerebral palsy. These are nice, happy people already living in your community. They are the ones bagging your groceries and stocking the shelves. They are all involved and engaged in the community now. They are just kind of like ‘invisible people’ that others don’t think about.”
In 2007 the parent group marked a major breakthrough. Darien’s Board of Selectmen decided to re-develop a six-acre land parcel that was the former site of an elementary school and currently houses the town’s Senior Center. The proposal included leasing enough land to support a 4,500 square foot building for the new group home, with the balance of property slated for reconstruction of the existing center and potential affordable senior housing at a future date. The $1 a year lease extends for 40 years with two, 10-year extensions and construction and ongoing maintenance of the new building is the sole responsibility of the parent group.
“The site is a really good fit because our kids may someday use the senior center gym and can do volunteer work there to help out,” explained Mr. Milne. “The location is also perfect because it is close to a bus stop and to shopping.”
From the Selectmen’s decision on the lease, to final approval by the town in April 2008 was nothing short of a whirlwind. Mr. Milne logged in about 22 presentations in one month before various subcommittees for planning, zoning, public health, safety and finance, and that does not even include the efforts of other group members. CIL also referred the Leviticus Fund to the parents as a potential source of construction financing for the project and in 2008 our Fund approved a $685,000 loan for the proposed Cottage in Darien.
“It has been an unbelievable process in terms of the amount of time that it has taken. A number of meetings, a number of conversations and then all of a sudden everything happened at once,” Mr. Milne declared. “We basically built this house in 112 days thanks to the leadership of Ali Milne during the construction phase and Kathy Gogolak’s assistance during the decorating process.”
The parent group has also taken their “good neighbor” philosophy very seriously. One weekend last fall, when new water and sewer lines required dredging up most of the street leading to the work site, the group delivered breakfast to surrounding neighbors, complete with apology cards and flowers.
“We’re trying to be good neighbors. At the end of the day, we’ve built one of the nicer houses in the neighborhood,” Mr. Milne explained. “Nobody is offended and everybody gets who we are and why we are here. They recognized that there was a need and that we should have this in our town. People are really proud of what has happened here and that was evidenced by the open house we had in April with over 200 people and the nice comments that people made.”
“I think we’ll be seeing more of this,” he added. “Many, many more children that are born with mental and physical defects are surviving and living much fuller lives then a generation ago. We’re not going to need fewer of these houses, we’re going to need more of them and it is really up to a community to decide its priorities.”
With walls, roof, windows and doors in place, and rooms freshly painted and decorated, the new Cottage in Darien has emerged as a very bright, airy and inviting home for six young adults. Most of the residents know each other, having grown up in the area and participated together in Special Olympics and recreational programs.
In fact, the parent group made a point of finding one of the original participating families whose son was placed in a group home in Byram, Connecticut. The young man’s siblings, who were his caregivers following the death of both parents, agreed to let their brother move into the new facility at Darien.
Barbara Jones Remington is with Star, Inc., a not-for-profit agency in Norwalk, Connecticut that provides services to the developmentally disabled from infancy to adulthood. Ms. Remington was hired as the House Manager for The Cottage in Darien, which officially began receiving new residents on March 6th. She described those first few days as electrifying with the residents settling into their rooms and new schedules. Mornings are busy at the Cottage, with many residents rising early to head off to day jobs or workshops. The dinner meal is typically community time and staff encourages the residents to be involved in menu planning, grocery shopping and cooking. The same holds true for other household chores, with staff attentive to a person’s individual capacity.
“I think for all of us there comes a point where we leave home and learn who we are independent of the security of our home life,” Ms. Remington explained. “I think when you are an individual with disabilities, sometimes we snuff that out. Maybe they are more independent then they thought. Maybe they have something to offer in ways they weren’t offering when living in a very familiar setting. I think that is the beauty of it.”
Ms. Remington has 20 years experience working in group homes and her son is developmentally disabled. She said it has been refreshing to see how much forethought and effort have gone into bringing these six individual residents together and how well their families, and community, interact together.
“It would be a great movie,” she added. ”It is just such a beautiful story of a community and families coming together and persevering through it all.”
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