The first time I visited the stately white mansion, sitting peacefully at the edge of a vast and magnificent marshland in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, I had no idea how my life was about to change.
I was there to drop off a young woman I had met doing volunteer work in nearby Great Barrington, at an arts program designed for people with disabilities. Louisa, who has down’s syndrome, is delightful and charismatic and one of my favorite individuals in the program. That day, she needed a ride home and I was glad to give her a lift.
Home, in this case, was this mansion, called Riverbrook, where Louisa lives with about two dozen other women who have developmental disabilities of one kind or another.
I happened to have my daughter’s adorable puppy in the car so when I walked Louisa to the front door, I carried the puppy in my arms.
The woman who answered the door, named Kathryn, invited me in for a tour. I agreed, and that’s when my life turned a corner, bringing me into a world that was brand new to me.
Something magical happened as we walked through the elegant two-story building, where each bedroom is painted in beautiful colors, and all of them are decorated with handsome furniture and lovely views out the windows.
Women were smiling everywhere I turned. One woman hugged me. Others begged to pet or hold the dog. I was enveloped in a very powerful feeling of love -- in a way I had never felt before. At the end of the tour, when Kathryn asked me if I wanted to volunteer, I said “sure” without hesitation.
That was July of 2013 and I have enjoyed every moment I’ve spent at Riverbrook!
On Monday afternoons, I meet with my dear friend Sue. We read together, take walks, go to cafes, go shopping or just hang out and talk. I never asked what Sue’s disability is because what does it matter? Sue reads two newspapers a day, writes beautifully, has a better memory than I do, and has, as a bonus, a splendid sense of humor!
On Thursdays, I teach a reading and writing class to a half dozen of the women. One woman is unable to read or write, but she has such a fabulous imagination (and she is so bubbly and enthusiastic – she has a large stack of journals) that all I have to do is act as a scribe recording her thoughts and impressions.
Back up to 1912.
Originally known as Konkaput Brook, for the stream that edges the property, Riverbrook is one of dozens of enormous Berkshire “cottages” erected during the Gilded Age, when industry, banking and businesses of all kinds were booming. The newly-minted millionaires took their money on vacation, creating swank resorts in Newport, Bar Harbor, Saratoga – and Stockbridge and Lenox. Dozens of opulent homes were constructed in Berkshire County as getaways for wealthy city dwellers who travelled to Stockbridge by train.
Designed by architect George De Gersdoff, Konkaput was built for Frederic Crowninshield, a gifted painter and teacher and a designer of magnificent murals and stained glass windows. His murals and windows appear in numerous churches and public buildings in New York, New England and the Midwest. Some of his stunning stained glass windows appear in Emmanuel Episcopal Church and in First Church, both in Boston, as well as in buildings on Harvard University’s campus.
Frederic’s son Frank Crowninshield was himself quite a character. Witty and charismatic, he landed himself a job as the first editor of Vanity Fair magazine, and was instrumental in creating the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.
Fast forward to 1957 – 60 years ago -- when Konkaput was purchased by social worker Annette McKenna, who operated a program in Stockbridge that served women with disabilities. That program, Riverbrook, was, and continues to be, one of the oldest facilities of its kind in the U.S.
In 1976, social worker Joan Burkhard – who had been Director of Special Education for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District –- joined with her husband, Dan, and two other couples to buy Riverbrook, which at the time was a private, for-profit operation. The Burkhards, who emptied their pockets to make the purchase, had a dream of what could happen at Riverbrook, and they were willing to put everything on the line to try to make a go of it.
The going was rough, especially in the beginning. At one point, the septic system in the old house failed. After four attempts to fix it, Burkhard says she “went on bended knee” to the town of Stockbridge, begging them to hook Riverbrook into the newly created town sewage system.
She laughs when she recalls the desperate campaign she launched to pay for the sewage hookup. She takes from a scrapbook a rather unique post card that Riverbrook mailed out as part of fund-raising efforts.
“One of our client’s fathers was a plumber,” she recalls, laughing. “So we had his daughter sit on the closed toilet, fully clothed, and we put a plunger in each of her hands.” The card read, “Houston – we’ve got a problem! The unorthodox campaign went on to raise a much-needed $125,000 and resolved the plumbing issue.
After running Riverbrook for 20 years as a private organization, the Burkhards in 1996 converted the operation to a not-for-profit, and formed a Board of Directors.
Today it is one of the most successful shared residential facilities in the U.S., serving 21 women with developmental disabilities. The women have a variety of diagnoses - blind, deaf, cerebral palsy, down’s syndrome. They are women first and no one pays much attention to their diagnosis - the focus is on their interesting and varied lives.
One thing that makes Riverbrook so unique and exciting is that the program offers countless opportunities to blossom. Each woman selects from an amazing variety of activities – among them dance, drumming, swimming, horseback riding, gardening, acting, yoga, painting, sports, handcrafts, music and writing -- offered in house or throughout the community.
Moreover, Riverbrook women also work in paid or volunteer positions serving more than 20 local businesses and not-for-profit organizations. These include the Red Lion Inn, the Lee and Stockbridge Libraries, Kripalu, Elder Services, Meals on Wheels, the Muddybrook Elementary School, Miss Hall’s and Kimball Farms. Staff at Riverbrook work closely with each of the women to match them with positions for which they are enthused and well suited.
“The community has been so receptive to the women, and to their participation in the work of the community,” says Burkhard. “The work the women do is absolutely amazing and it keeps getting better and better.”
The relationship between Riverbrook and the Stockbridge community is a very positive one, Burkhard says. “It’s happened organically. We’ve been a presence in the community for a long time, and we are always respectful of everyone. The relationship grew by exposure over many many positive experiences. Over time, people in the community have embraced the pleasures and benefits of knowing the women they employ.”
I am one of those people in the community. My life is endlessly enriched by the friendships I have at Riverbrook. Time and again, I marvel at the fact that there isn’t the least bit of an “institutional” feeling about the place.
What inspires me? The idea that Riverbrook and its rich and lively programs could serve as a model, replicated in group homes throughout the U.S.
Today is Monday, so in a little while I will be heading up to Riverbrook to see Sue. As I drive there, I realize once again how Riverbrook enriches my life.
It’s an extended family. It’s a place for growth and development and discovery. It is a place where love abounds. It’s a place where exceptional women live and thrive, now and in the future.