At Walnut Street Center, Adults With Disabilities Find A Caring Community

walnut street centerPhotos by Jess Benjamin

But the organization won’t have a home in Somerville for long—its land has been seized for development by the MBTA.

On a bustling Friday afternoon at Walnut Street Center, dozens of people are putting together toiletry kits for victims affected by Hurricane Matthew in Haiti. Some move carefully down an assembly line, holding paper bags out at each station where others drop in their items—a toothbrush here, a tissue pack there. When they finish filling more than 30 overstuffed packages, the group gathers to take a celebratory photo.

Walnut Street Center, or WSC, is a Somerville-based healthcare nonprofit that serves adults with disabilities. In addition to its facilities outside Union Square, the center oversees more than 20 residential properties where program participants live together, taking a van to and from WSC on weekdays. Some receive individualized medical or habilitation support, while others are enrolled in community work and volunteer programs.

Through partnerships with local businesses and organizations, WSC has focused in recent years on getting its members out and about in the community, moving away from assignments and activities that previously kept them inside the facility. In addition to opportunities for landing volunteer or paid work in Somerville, WSC programs include the opportunity for participants to engage in recreational and educational activities.

David Melvin, a participant at WSC, particularly enjoys the center’s recreational excursions—like tours of Fenway Park, kayaking and horseback riding, where he bonded with the horses. “They just walk on gently,” he says. Another of his favorite activities at WSC is gardening; he and other participants travel to Gaining Ground—a nonprofit farm in Concord—to learn about farming and produce. “Every day, we should be accessing the community in some fashion,” says Jay Haston, the center’s director of day facilities.

Bob Landry is a business manager at WSC, where he’s worked for nearly 10 years after a career in consumer product engineering for companies like Gillette. He says people often ask him how he’s adapted to working in the nonprofit services world, coming from a fast-paced, global, corporate career.

walnut street center“It’s rewarding in other ways,” he smiles.

Landry helps connect local businesses and partners with WSC for employment and volunteer programs at places like Aeronaut Brewery, where participants stamp coasters and fold towels, among other tasks. “They do awesome work,” says Aeronaut CEO Ben Holmes. “It’s fun for our team to have new company, and I think that it provides a really good destination for the Walnut Street crew as well.”

WSC participant Kim Coveny is employed through the program by Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services (SCES) Meals on Wheels program. “I believe it is important to provide adults with developmental disabilities the opportunity to work in the community,” says Deb McLean, nutrition director of the SCES Community Meals Program. Coveny works one shift a week alongside other participants and staff members, delivering meals to senior citizens in the Davis Square area. She loves it so much, Landry says, that WSC’s visiting musical therapist wrote a song dedicated to their Meals on Wheels work.

WSC employs 220 staff members who work in rotating shifts all day, every day—even on holidays, for which WSC Executive Director Carolyne Guffey says she’s incredibly grateful. Providing consistent, direct care at WSC is critical. “You’re not a babysitter,” Guffey says. “You’re a teacher, a counselor, an advocate.”

Much of WSC’s funding comes from Medicaid and from the state, and staff members and participants occasionally visit the state house to advocate for funding. Guffey explains that prioritizing programming— from classroom-style education to community-based experiences— while improving residential facilities—from institutionalization to group homes—presents an ongoing negotiation for an organization like theirs, because state funding often doesn’t keep pace with need.

At home for the evening, Coveny’s five housemates look through their paychecks and mail at the dining room table. The kitchen is warm and cozy, and a TV is on quietly in the living room. Upstairs, Coveny has large photographs of nieces, brothers and other family members hanging on her walls. She says she can’t wait for upcoming family holidays. It’s October, but she’s already selected dresses—hanging outside her closet—for Thanksgiving, Christmas and her January birthday.

The women take turns making dinner at home. Tonight, one housemate is making an eggplant pasta dish, and Coveny is helping house manager Colleen Levasseur make pumpkin spice muffins. They’re making a concerted effort to be healthier at home, Levasseur says. The muffins are made with raw pumpkin from a healthy recipe website, and this year they even had a small garden at the house.

walnut street center

They’ve instituted a walking group around the neighborhood, too—in fact, staff at the nearby Magoun Square restaurant Daddy Jones saw them walking so often that they approached Levasseur and invited the group to dine on the patio.

Levasseur has been house manager here for over a year. There are other staff members on duty—always at least two staff at the house when residents are there. After working her way up to higher-level administrative work at other direct care facilities, Levasseur says she’s returned to working directly with residents. “This is the stuff I love,” she says.

After four decades in Somerville, WSC is moving out in early 2017. The MBTA has seized its longtime location through eminent domain to make room for the coming Green Line Extension. Most of the center’s residential properties are in Somerville and will remain here, but the new day facility will be in Medford, at 291 Mystic Ave.

“We weren’t expecting to be displaced,” Guffey says. “But we’re making the best of it. For me, that’s being able to design the place exactly as we wanted to.”

The new building is larger—a one-story, handicapped-accessible building with accommodations for a broader range of needs. Administrators worked with program participants to see what kinds of resources and amenities would be most important to have in the new building. As a result, there will be designated space for new music and movement programs, as well as art classes. WSC also hopes to expand services in the new building to help people who have brain injuries with everyday activities and daily living skills.

Participants will no longer need to travel to Concord to learn about farming and produce—the new building will have indoor and outdoor gardening facilities and nature programming. The next initiative in residential services is a shared living facility, modeled like a foster care program, according to Guffey.

“With the new building we had the chance to design the internal layout ourselves and really create a space that works for our programs,” she says. “We’re excited that we will be able to offer even more to the individuals we serve, and we can’t wait to see them getting to try it all out for the first time.”

This story originally appeared in the January/February print edition of Scout, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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