“Home, sweet home.” What does this phrase mean to you? What kind of feelings does it stir inside? The feelings and thoughts attached to these words are as unique and different as the person hearing them. Generally though, there is agreement that the word “home” stirs feelings of warmth, welcome, and a sense of belonging in addition to a place of shelter where needs are met in a caring environment versus the word “house” – a physical place of residence providing shelter.
It was with some of these thoughts in mind that I ventured out to visit two of Washington State’s Residential Habilitation Centers (RHC’s) at Fircrest & Rainier in Shoreline & Buckley respectively. Having heard arguments on both sides of the debate – for & against consolidation & closure of these facilities, I wanted to see for myself and form my own opinion. “Are these institutions really home where people live in a place of warmth with a sense of belonging where their needs are met in a caring environment? Or are they institutional houses where people are placed with their basic needs met?”
I was particularly struck by the locations of both of these RHC’s. They are both located in lovely surroundings on large parcels of land, beautifully landscaped in picturesque settings, yet notably secluded and separate from their surrounding cities and communities. Arriving at Fircrest, I couldn’t help but notice the age of the brick buildings, the overwhelming impression - cold and impersonal. Of course the large unsightly food, laundry, and garbage carts located outside the front doors of each cottage confirmed I had indeed arrived at an institution versus a community. Rainier on the other hand reminded me of an army base or prison facility behind the gates and fences with its old-style stark white peeling paint and red Spanish tile roofs, and buildings connected by long covered walkways.
I found the facilities at each campus were clean and maintained, though they felt cold, stark, archaic, and in great need of modern updates both inside and out. I found it peculiar that décor on both campuses looked like thrift store purchases from many years gone by, curled posters, cheaply framed faded prints, outdated curtains hung on barred windows if at all.
I appreciate the work that these residents perform: sterilizing used Comcast remotes, shredding documents, thrift store duties, and pouring beautiful paving stones. However, the biggest factor I found lacking was the sense of community. I kept pondering, “How will the community ever be able to appreciate the values of self-determination, independence, inclusion, integration, and productivity for people with developmental disabilities if they’re kept isolated and segregated? When was the last time these adults and youth went on a vacation, went camping, saw a school play, or heard the laughter of a child?”
At Fircrest, each living room is arranged with one shared T.V. and generic “Dr’s Office” chairs set around the sparsely decorated walls of the vinyl floor room. Each child, youth and adult at Fircrest has their own very small bedroom, meagerly furnished with a twin-size bed and dresser. Out of the dozen or more bedrooms I visited there, only a meager few appeared personalized in any way. I thought, “Even college dormitories are more appealing than this”. Unfortunately nothing I observed about this campus made me feel the least bit inclined to sit down, get comfortable and have a cup of tea anywhere – a pleasure I instinctively link to feelings of home.
To my surprise, I did observe more texture, color and variety when it came to décor and “home-like” comforts in the Rainier cottages, where 8 residents share two warmly decorated living areas per side with more comfortable furnishings, overstuffed chairs and recliners. I noted that some of the Rainier residents also share larger more personalized bedrooms, 2 to a room, comfortably furnished with warm décor. Colorful attractive home-style dinnerware adorned Rainier’s tables while residents ate from standard melamine cafeteria dishes at Fircrest.
I have a daughter with multiple disabilities, similar to many of the residents in these two facilities. When Jessica was born with Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, I was given the option to place her in an institution where she’d be cared for. As I toured the RHC’s, I kept thinking, “Would Jessica be comfortable enough to call one of these cottages home? Would she be happy with the lack of freedom, lack of choices and lack of independence? Is she really safer set apart FROM the community in an institutional house or safer IN a community home?”
I couldn’t help but feel sad and discouraged as I left these properties, wondering if the adults and youth were there willingly or if they’d ever been given a choice. I felt equally troubled for the families who had brought their family members to these houses. What choices and options were they given?
As I pondered the thought of “relaxing and having a cup of tea in the Rainier Cottage”, a wise friend kindly reminded me of the secrets behind these walls – the abuses committed when there is no choice, no freedom, no other option, no way of escape. Are these dear people really at Home Sweet Home or prisoners kept safe inside prettied up institutional houses? My friend is right; I don’t want to drink my cup of tea here either.
As I drove away from these RHC’s, these institutions, these duplex houses, I turned my heart towards the warmth of home. My heart felt lighter as I pondered my daughters, each with her own unique and different abilities - her sense of belonging, her safe place in our home where hugs abound, laughter comes easy, choices are made, freedom is earned and independence is learned. “Home Sweet Home” – the words have never meant more.
Joy Caldwell , Skagit County Parent Coalition Coordinator is a parent of a child with a disability. Joy Caldwell has been both a formal and informal advocate for families and people with disabilities for the past twelve years. Joy has developed and taught seminars and workshops to the general public, early interventionists, therapists, teachers’ assistants, caregivers, support workers, and parents. During her time in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, she served as Chairperson on the Executive Board of Directors for the Edmonton Down Syndrome Society for two years.