By Kristen J. Tsetsi. Originally published in the Journal Inquirer, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012, under the title “Creative plan grows in greenhouse.”
If the Creative Living Community receives a donation of 100 or more acres of farmland, Eastern Connecticut just may spearhead what could become a nationwide revolution in better utilizing the special skills and talents of a community’s residents.
The ultimate vision for the Creative Living Community according to a preliminary farmstead design: A fully functioning village comprising micro-businesses, housing, a community center, a greenhouse and barn, and even a restaurant and a brew house.
The residents: Approximately 80 people, 20 disabled and 60 non-disabled, all of them working and thriving together in a sustainable environment that fulfills the mission of the Community, which is to “create a shared, inclusive living experience for individuals with and without developmental disabilities … by focusing upon the gifts of all in mutually rewarding relationships.”
In 2006, a group of parents of adult children with special needs realized they all shared — and continue to share — a pressing concern regarding what will happen to their disabled adult children when they can no longer care for them at home.
One of those parents is founding member Cindy Hall, whose autistic 25-year-old son Curtis still lives at home, as do approximately 80 percent of adults between the ages of 19 and 30 with autism, according to a 2008 study by leading autism service provider Easter Seals.
Lois Rosenwald, executive director of the Connecticut Autism Spectrum Resource Center, says the state has minimal services for adults on the autism spectrum and calls the adult autism population in Connecticut “under-served.”
“We spend so much time and money at the front end when they’re children,” she says, adding that as soon as they graduate from high school, it all but stops.
“This is a huge, growing diagnosis. We have thousands of people in the state with this diagnosis, and we’re now servicing about 100. That’s how limited we are. That’s a crisis.”
Hall says of the farmstead village, which resembles the Camphill community Dr. Karl Koenig founded in 1939 in Scotland for children with developmental disabilities, “We’re trying to be one proactive solution to that. It supports people with developmental disabilities and their vocational training by giving them options to feel like they’re contributing to society in a very meaningful way.”
In 2007, the group of parents anxious about their children’s futures began their conversation, and in 2009, the Community officially became a nonprofit organization.
This summer saw the first major, tangible step toward their goal with the completion of a greenhouse micro-business, one of the key features of their cooperative environment.
Located on the grounds of the Tolland County Agricultural Center, it is only the beginning of introducing to the public the bigger picture of Creative Living, says greenhouse manager Kris Treat.
And, although a gentle start, the greenhouse allows them to slowly begin providing services.
“Twice a week, I have both a senior and an adult with autism,” Treat says.
The adult is Hall’s son, Curt, and the senior citizen is his grandmother. Together, they make rows in the soil, plant seedlings, or wash out containers.
Hall says it’s one of the most exciting days of her son’s week.
“He just loves being in this environment. He can do what he wants to do, and it’s repetitive in a way that’s security for him.”
The greenhouse also allows for the early establishment of business relationships, and although she won’t give up the name until it’s official, Treat says they’re working with a Manchester restaurant to develop custom micro-green blends.
The money the greenhouse makes goes back into the Creative Living “pot,” but the project is also dependent upon donations and sponsors. To that end, the members will hold their first annual fundraiser, the Farmstead Fair, at the agricultural center in September.
In the meantime, the greenhouse will continue to operate, the relationships it builds aiding them in bringing to fruition a five-phase development plan that inspires the residents to use their gifts in whatever way they can.
“Our folks have many, many strengths,” Rosenwald says of the autistic population. One strength she offers by way of example is the ability to focus on a single thing for an extended period. And a publication issued by the Autism Resource Center notes that many on the autism spectrum possess “splinter skills,” which is to say they’re very good at certain things even if they aren’t very good at others.
When Hall’s son was 5 years old, she says, she had no idea whether he would learn to hold a fork. Now he’s an artist, selling cards on his own website and generating proceeds for Creative Living.
But it isn’t just the disabled whose skills will be utilized at the farmstead.
Lynn Gustafson, a member of Hall’s church who joined the community-building team, worked for 31 years in the school system and, as head of schoolhouse services, worked with several children with disabilities.
“There are several of us elderly folk, also, that still have a lot to give to the community. I don’t want to go to a nursing home or to assisted living, but I would love to live on the farm and then use my skills and talent to help.”
Rosenwald, who admits to knowing little about the plans for the farmstead, cautions that because autism, in particular, is such a broad-spectrum disability — “I don’t think there’s anything larger in terms of spectrum” — the solutions to employment and living will be very different for each individual.
However, she adds that this may be one solution for a number of people.
“I’m respectful of anyone trying to do this work. Getting society to focus on adults on the spectrum is never easy.”
For more information about the Creative Living Community, visit: www.creativelivingcommunityofct.org
To view, or purchase, Curtis Hall’s cards, visit: