Greystone Programs continues to find new ways to fulfill its mission
By Brian P.J. Cronin
Photographed by dKol Photography
“We just started eating different, and sugar hadn’t been a big request anymore,” she recalled. “Since nobody was requesting it, I never replaced it.”
Mott isn’t talking about the house she lives in, although considering the amount of time she spends here each week, she may as well be living in it. Mott is the Residence Manager of the Warwick House in Warwick, in which six men with autism and/or developmental disabilities live. The house is managed by Greystone Programs, Mott’s employer, who have been improving the lives of people with autism and developmental disabilities in the Hudson Valley since before most people even knew what autism was.
Greystone Programs began in 1979 as just one house, its namesake two-story cobblestone cottage in Hyde Park, the first group home in the state for people with autism. The cottage stood in stark contrast to the more institutionalized settings that people with disabilities were put into at the time, as well as the institutionalized mind-set that providers operated on. The six adults in the Greystone House were supported instead of taken care of, with a goal of self-sufficiency and independence in mind.
Almost 40 years later, Greystone has grown to 14 houses throughout the Hudson Valley, with two more houses scheduled to open this year. Individuals in the house need routine medical services, but other than that, it’s the job of people like Victoria Mott to make it seem like any other house with several roommates, with an eye on planning activities that enrich and improve their lives. Staff of Direct Support Professionals are present 24/7 in the home, helping the men learn skills that will lead to greater independence.
Or assisting with their diet.
“I’ve been trying to get them back to the earth a little bit and having them work in meaningful ways around the house,” said Mott. “As well as what we can do to ensure good health practices for both the staff and the individuals.” Last year she helped the residents put in a patio garden so that they had easy access to fresh vegetables when cooking. She also taught them how to read and interpret the labels on packaged food, the difference between good and bad cholesterol, portion sizes and how to make healthier choices in their daily eating habits. That led to a talk about why honey and palm sugar are healthier sweeteners than white sugar, and that’s why you won’t find white sugar in the Warwick House anymore. Everyone stopped using it. “It’s nice to see those unhealthy food addictions get broken,” said Mott.
The original Greystone House in Hyde Park is still in use, and it’s where Yesenia Iglesias started working nine years ago, helping residents of the house do everything from shower to cook meals. Now, however, she’s out of the house and into the community.
“This is a day-hab without walls,” she says of Project FAME, the Greystone program she currently supervises that’s based in Poughkeepsie. “We are out and about all day.”
FAME stands for Forming Associations through Meaningful Experiences. The program grew out of an earlier effort in which Greystone got individuals with autism and developmental disabilities to do volunteer vocational work. But the work was mostly on-site tasks such as weeding and cleaning that involved limited social interaction with the community, if any at all. Project FAME was created to change that.
“While we’re out there, we are teaching them skills to help them get by with their day-to-day needs,” said Iglesias. “Whether it’s socialization, learning how to greet people, giving them eye contact, social skills, waiting for people to finish conversations before you come in and say good morning, to money management, to directions to and from here. Everyone has different goals that they’re working on when they’re out there.”
For Project FAME, Iglesias takes up to 30 individuals, currently aged between 19 and 58, out to implement such people-oriented tasks as working in the Rhinebeck Town Hall, serving meals at the Lunch Box inside Family Services’ Family Partnership building in Poughkeepsie and delivering Meals on Wheels to homebound seniors throughout the area. Younger people can take part in Greystone’s two after-school programs: Club ASPIRE (After School Program Integrating Recreation and Education), based in Orange County, and Club COOL (Community Outreach and Opportunities for Learning), based in Dutchess County, as well as a social-skills training program called SURPASS (Support and Understanding Regarding Play and Social Skills).
Just like anyone, some of the younger people starting out in Project FAME can be a little nervous at first, especially when paired up with someone much older than they are. “You see them come in and look at you nervously, like ‘I don’t know if this is for me,’” said Iglesias. But with the older individuals acting as mentors—which in itself is a way to develop social skills—everyone is eventually won over. “Once they get in there and start building relationships with their peers, they start opening up,” she said. “They become more open in their communication and more comfortable with the program as a whole. You see these great friendships developing between 20-year-olds and 44-year-olds, and it’s a beautiful thing.”
Iglesias also enjoys seeing those she works with become more confident over time and forge comfortable social relationships, whether it’s with the homeless individuals they pour coffee for at a shelter, the kitchen staff they peel potatoes with at the Lunch Box or the senior citizens who tell them that they look forward to seeing them. When they’re ready, and if they want to, the individuals can also take part in a Pathway to Employment Program, which helps them build skills for finding their own jobs. “They’re so excited to independently fill out applications,” said Iglesias. “I love it when someone comes in and excitedly tells us, ‘I went to the mall and filled out an application by myself, and they called me back!’” she said.
In a sense, it falls to Iglesias and her coworkers to not only help the individuals in her care to adjust to society but to help society adjust to them. At times they get stares, or people will come up to her and ask what they’re doing. “We sometimes face people who don’t think they’re smart enough to do the job,” she admits. “But I have a great team, and we remain professional at all times. It can be a challenge, but when they see my team in action, they’re in awe. It’s rewarding to see my team prove that…not only can they do just as much as we can, they can sometimes do even more. Because we’re here, we’re here to stay, and you’re going to see more and more of us.”
And as Veronica Mott points out, that will hopefully lead to people reconsidering their behavior around the disabled.
“People still have the idea that people with autism aren’t interested in what you’re saying,” said Mott. “Or they don’t understand communication. All of the individuals in my home and the other ones I’ve worked in, they really understand. So if they really understand, you have to re-examine yourself and ask: What are you offering them in terms of your connection to them?”
For more information about Greystone and their programs, visit www.greystoneprograms.org. █