Valley News Staff Writer
West Lebanon — Nearly every week the executive director of a local residence for adults with special needs gets a phone call that makes her cry.
Parents, some in their 70s or 80s, who are caring for their adult children call to find out what options are available for “when something happens to them,” said Sylvia Dow, who leads Visions for Creative Housing Solutions in Enfield.
“I hear some heartbreaking stories,” Dow said. “There is such need out there.”
People are searching for a place where their sons or daughters will feel they fit in, where they’ll have friends and support, somewhere permanent, she said.
But with nine residents, and a tenth about to move in, Visions has a waiting list. And even if there were room, it isn’t the right fit for everyone.
They plan to meet monthly to learn more about what people are looking for and outline the steps to get there, Dow said. Those who are interested can join at any time.
A second meeting is set for Jan. 24 at 5 p.m., also at the library.
At the initial meeting, Dow described Visions, and how it came to be.
She and her husband, David, have two adult daughters with special needs, and until recently they’d all lived in a farmhouse on the property that is now Visions. The Dows had always worried about where their daughters would live when they were no longer around, and when Sylvia Dow had a health scare several years ago, the couple and other families of people with special needs started working to make that permanent home a reality.
The 80-acre site is home to adults with developmental and similar disabilities, each of whom has a job in the community and receives various levels of support. It offers a number of housing options, including the farmhouse and apartments that were once part of an inn that had belonged to Dow’s family for decades.
The employees include more than a dozen support staff and others who do “tons of team building” and help the cultivate friendships among the residents, Dow said. Most nights the residents meet at the farmhouse for dinner, which they often have a hand in cooking.
They love getting together and become a family among themselves, said Dow, who’d like to see more small-group living situations for adults with special needs.
Home care providers can change their minds or move, she said, which disrupts an individual’s entire life. “Our children need to find a home of their own,” to be supported in a model that works for them. But whatever comes next doesn’t have to resemble Visions, she said. “I think we can look outside the box.”
Nonetheless, several people at the meeting said they’d like to see a similar option in Upper Valley downtowns.
Nancy Smith’s 44-year-old daughter, Stacey Smith, has lived in a Lebanon apartment for five years. She works with a mentor during the week, but Nancy Smith still provides a good deal of support.
“I’m her alarm clock,” making sure she gets up in the morning, and her overnight emergency person, the Enfield resident said during the meeting. “You have to be so involved as a parent.”
Stacey loves having her own space and being able to walk to AVA Gallery and Art Center, the gym and the bus stop, Nancy Smith said in an interview last week. But something’s missing.
On the weekends, when the buses aren’t running, she’s “kind of stranded,” Smith said. “We try to get her out here on Sundays for a family day,” but unless she can connect with one of her friends who lives nearby, Saturdays are “a very lonely time for her.”
Nancy Smith and several others are on the lookout for an apartment building in Lebanon that would be suitable for a Visions-like setup. That way, someone would be always around to help Stacey, and she’d have friends nearby, to do a puzzle, watch a movie or “just be” with, Smith said.
Hanover residents Miriam and Aaron Osofsky are planning for the summer, when their 20-year old son, Sam, graduates from the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, Conn. They’re working to put services in place for Sam, who needs round-the-clock support. Ideally, they’d like for him to live in downtown Hanover or West Lebanon, with a compatible housemate and other people with special needs close by, similar to what Visions offers.
“Friendships that can develop, a second family, that all sounds great,” said Miriam Osofsky, who figures such a living situation would put also Sam at ease.
“I’m sure that’s on his mind, ‘What happens if my parents die?’ ” she said after the November meeting. “I’m sure his anxiety would drop if he had a stable place.”
If Sam lived nearby, they could visit him in all weather and continue sharing fun family activities, such as sleepovers and laser tag, and snuggle with him, she said. “Everyone needs to be held.”
Down the road, Dow envisions bringing in experts to talk to the group, perhaps about finances and regulations. And depending on what people are looking for, new organizations could be included under the Visions umbrella, sharing expenses and fundraising efforts. Exactly how that would play out isn’t yet clear, but the timing is right to consider the possibilities; the nonprofit recently received a block grant to develop a sustainability plan and is considering whether it makes sense to expand.
Along the way, Visions will continue to offer its help to people who may take a similar path. The paperwork and logistics are daunting: Visions was years in the making. But for families and residents, it’s brought long-sought peace of mind.
“I know that if something happens to me, it’s not all about Mom anymore … or about Dad,” Dow told the crowd at the library. There’s “a whole structure” in place.
Reprinted from Valley News