Monday, September 13, 2010

Moving Day

Transitioning to a group home

Laura Shumaker

My son 22 year old son Matthew and I were cruising our neighborhood for garage sales early one November morning, and we weren’t having a lot of luck. We needed to find furniture for the apartment that he would be moving into the following weekend.

Matthew has autism, and would be part of a Supported Living arrangement that we had designed with the help of our regional department of developmental services and Camphill Communities in Soquel, California.

“Supported Living Services (SLS) consist of a broad range of services to adults with developmental disabilities,” said Mary, who had been Matthew’s social worker since middle school.

“With a supported living program,” Mary said, “Matthew will be able to exercise meaningful choice and control in his life, but with enough support to help him achieve his long term goals.”

“How long term is “long term?” I asked.

“The services are offered for as long and as often as needed, with the flexibility required to meet a persons' changing needs over time.”

Matthew told Mary that he would need to be a gardener and a landscaper, and that he’d need a girl friend, as well.


Our family had become connected to Camphill, a worldwide organization with nurturing communities for the developmentally disabled, when Matthew was a teenager and we were desperate to place him in their residential school in Pennsylvania.

It was the last thing we thought we would ever do.

While painfully aware of his disability, Matthew has always wanted to a regular guy like his two younger brothers. He didn’t just want to be a regular guy, actually, but the guy -- the poisonous plant and weed expert, and the lawn care authority of our northern California community. He was often seen at our local hardware store with his large hands wrapped around a bottle of weed killer, studying the label earnestly, and he’d approach strangers with warnings about deadly nightshade, oleander, and water hemlock.

But just a few days into his 16th year, Matthew decided that he should drive a car like a regular guy and drove my car through a wall in our garage. There were other close calls. One day during his freshman year at our local high school, he observed a guy pushing his girlfriend flirtatiously and then tapping her on the head. When Matthew tried the same move with too much force, I was summoned to his school where he was crying in the principal’s office. “Joe did it to Sue, and she liked it!”

Just when we thought things were calming down following the incident at school, a letter arrived from an attorney asking us to contact him about the bicycle accident involving Matthew. It turned out that while riding his bike, Matthew had collided with a young boy on his bike the month before.

“Matthew? What’s this about a bike accident?”

“Who told you?”

“Someone sent me a letter. Was the boy you bumped into hurt?”

“Pretty much”

Dear God.

“Was he bleeding?”

“Probably. Am I in trouble?”

It became clear that Matthew was no longer safe in the community where he had grown up, and his impulsive actions were putting others in peril. He needed more supervision, more than we or the local school could provide. We were grateful to find Camphill, and were excited about the prospect of Matthew being a part of their community near our home in Northern California when he was an adult.

Now, Matthew would be the first to take part in Camphill California’s supported living program and would be living in an apartment near the community with a “roommate” hired by the Camphill program, one who could assist Matthew with daily living activities, personal financial affairs, and help involve him community life.

Matthew would also be involved in a day program that would provide vocational training, social skills workshops, recreation and other supports.

Putting the program together had taken months, and had been stalled by waiting periods, misplaced paperwork and red tape tangled beyond recognition. While we waited for the program to come together, Matthew felt unsettled and lost without a routine he could count on. He lived at home and was lonely, so I hired “friends” that he could hand out with. Finally, the program gelled, and move in day was December 1, 2008.

“I’m getting tired of all this driving,” Matthew whined after 45 minutes of garage sales with nothing but knick knacks. Just as we turned the corner to head home, Matthew yelled, “STOP! LOOK! I see something good.”

It was a large green sofa sitting cockeyed at the end of a long driveway with a large sign on it.

“Look!” Matthew gasped, “It’s free!”

Matthew jumped out of the car before I could park it and sat on the sofa with a big grin. It seemed to be in good shape, except for a small tear on the arm. Just then, a grandfatherly type walked out and shook my hand.

“Will you take this off my hands?” he asked. “I’m moving to a smaller place and it just won’t fit.”

I offered to pay for the sofa, but he joked that he would pay me if I took it. He even offered to lend me is truck to take it away. I introduced the kind donor to Matthew who was still sitting on the sofa with a goofy grin.

“Guess what?” Matthew said. “I’m moving too. Into my own apartment. That’s what guys my age do.”

As we loaded the sofa into the truck, I thought about the day I moved into my first apartment. I was about Matthew’s age and I felt so grown up-so liberated. I remember my mother’s tearful send off when I drove away in the moving truck with my roommates. I also remember stopping home the next weekend with a load of laundry where my mother greeting me with a hug and a smile.

I knew that Matthew would continue to need a lot of ongoing support from me, especially in the beginning of his new adventure.

But as he sat grinning on his sofa on that November morning, just a regular guy getting ready to set up his first place, I decided to worry about that part later.