'Yellow House' to serve adults with special needs in Middlebury
MIDDLEBURY — Most parents nurture their children in hopes they will, some day, make the jump to self-sufficiency — or will be able to find the supports they need to live independently.
But that can be an impossible dream for the parents of special needs children.
“We lie awake at night asking ourselves, ‘How will our children live healthy, happy and meaningful lives when we are not here to navigate and advocate for them?’” said Andrea Murray, whose 18-year-old son Pierce has special needs.
In an effort to get some peace of mind for themselves and other families sharing the same concerns, Murray and her husband, Chris, have teamed up with another local couple (Kristen and Joseph Brown) to propose an assisted living facility at 29 Seminary St. in Middlebury. The project — which they’ve dubbed “Yellow House” to match the home’s vibrant exterior hue — would provide beds, key supports and enriching programming for up to six special-needs adults, all under the supervision of a household head, administrator and additional support staff.
“Yellow House provides adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities with safe, residential family households, and the support to continue developing skills, interests and meaningful relationships,” reads a project application on file with the Middlebury Development Review Board, which will field the request on Aug. 12.
Yellow House’s day programming will also be available to other area individuals with special needs.
“My husband and I had been thinking about doing something like this for a long time,” Murray said. “When you have a child who has special needs, you think about what will happen when you’re not around.”
The Murrays knew they weren’t alone, and found kindred spirits in the Browns, whose daughter Elizabeth has special needs.
“One day, we just had a conversation and said, ‘Let’s join forces, because we have the same vision,’” Murray recalled.
That common vision included a downtown location where adults with special needs could live and flourish with fulfilling programming and compassionate, caring oversight.
They looked for a suitable place, which they found in 29 Seminary St. The property includes a large house and carriage barn, and it’s located close to downtown shops and services.
“We felt very strongly that we needed to be in the walkable downtown of our community so that we can be integrated,” Murray said.
Plans call for the main house to accommodate three special needs adults, with another three individuals to reside at the carriage barn, which currently contains a three-bedroom apartment and an office.
Work thus far has included the installation of fire alarm system (including sprinkler), energy efficiency upgrades, handrails and of course ensuring the buildings are tailored to individuals with physical challenges.
“The main house is currently being renovated to become universally accessible and to also meet applicable life-safety codes and requirements of our insurers,” Murray said.
Organizers have put a lot of thought and study into how the Yellow House would be organized and operated. They’re applying to the state for a “Therapeutic Community Residence” designation for the facility. This would allow them to model the program after the Camphill Communities of North America. An example can currently be found in the Heartbeet Lifesharing community in Hardwick. Heartbeet serves adults with developmental disabilities and “interweaves the social, artistic, and agricultural realms for the healing and renewing of our society and the earth,” according to the organization’s website, heartbeet.org.
“Together at Yellow House, this family unit will run a household, organize activities and contribute the greater Middlebury Community in ways that further enrich their lives and the lives of others,” Murray said.
While Yellow House isn’t yet ready for residents, it has already launched programming that’s been paying nice dividends for folks with special needs and the community at large. Thursday saw Yellow House summer program Coordinator Jodi James lead a group of participants to the Charter House Coalition headquarters at 27 North Pleasant St., where they donated food to help the hungry and homeless. They’ve picnicked with residents of Helen Porter Rehab & Nursing. They collected school supplies to send to kids in Puerto Rico.
“This is a really amazing group of young adults,” she said of her protégés, who also recently helped a Brandon woman clear out her barn.
“It truly is a privilege to do this job, to see the independence and skills these young adults have practiced the last seven weeks, and to see how proud they are of themselves at being able to do some of the simplest tasks that others take for granted,” James added.
Elisa Haydon will lead Yellow House operations. She is a former special educator with the Addison Central School District, having worked 12 years with the district’s Diversified Occupations Program that served students with specific academic, vocational and behavioral needs.
“I was blessed to have a lot of strong mentors with the program who helped me understand how to support people with special needs, so that they can become contributing members of our community and have rich relationships, friendships, jobs and a satisfying life beyond high school,” said Haydon.
Haydon learned of the Yellow House from a parent of one of her former students. She heard organizers were seeking an executive director, and applied.
“I fell in love with the vision the Murrays and the Browns have; it was in line with my philosophy on how to support young people with special needs,” Haydon said. “I felt it was a natural next step beyond what I was dong with young people in high school.”
Haydon has seen firsthand the struggles parents face as their special needs children become adults.
“I think what we’re doing is a big need for this community,” Haydon said. “I worked with many families on transitioning (their children) from high school … What I knew was lacking was the community aspect, in terms of the living situation and friends and relationships. There weren’t a lot of options for young people after high school.”
State and national statistics underscore the problem.
In 2017, an estimated 1,510 adults with special needs received funding for 24-hour support, according to the Vermont Department of Disabilities, Aging, & Independent Living’s 2017 annual report.
“An estimated 546 people with need in Vermont are also supported with limited resources,” Murray added, quoting the same report. “These are the people we know about, yet the need could be greater.”
Meanwhile, as estimated 40 million American adults — 12.6 percent of the population — were living with mental and physical disabilities in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“There is a need for an alternative, just as typically developing adults would have, where adults with special needs make a transition to the ‘real world’ to a lifestyle that recognizes and employs their strengths, supports continued learning growth, and provides the opportunity for developing loving relationships with new people other than their parents and immediate families,” Murray said. “In addition, there needs to be a system in place to ensure the sustainability of this lifestyle for the lifespan of each individual.”
Murray and Haydon thanked Counseling Service of Addison County officials for guiding them through the organizational process — including understanding the funding process for special needs services. Plans call for the Yellow House to become a nonprofit entity, according to Murray.
“Our goal is to become a friendly organization,” Murray said.
Anyone interested in more information about Yellow House, or who might want to volunteer, should contact Haydon at email@example.com.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.