April 2021: The Village on the Verge of the Next Big Step

You have followed our vision. A 25 acre-25 family innovation in community-centric mental health care, at an iconic site, for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

This month, we received word that a developer would be making an offer on 300 acres (est.) of Eastern State property (neighboring Eastern State Hospital and New Town) to the State General Services Department that includes Hope Family Village. A process will begin.

For the past three years, we have been following and participating with tmany stakeholders (James City County, General Services, Real Estate Department (their brokers), Colonial Behavioral Health, the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services and our state legislators. We have been visible in the Greater Williamsburg/James City Community, giving presentations.

Lisa Thomas Presenting to Toano Kiwanis Club

We now find ourselves on the precipice of the next bold steps where dreams and destiny meet.

Shortly before receiving this news, we distributed our inaugural newsletter that will be one of our instruments toward attracting both equity members, and members, in Hope Family Village, the community. Along with our nonprofit, the equity members, the future residents, will be the actual co-community designers and co-developers. In expectation, we joined the Cohousing Community Launch Program, our project being an adaptation of cohousing.

In the next several months, we will be making more announcements about the project and schedule. Director Lisa Thomas heads our Village Team and has been active with her committee members concerning rendering an early community conceptual design, preliminary mapping work, and legal support.

Since our origin in 2017, we credit our board, and several key outside advisors (co-founders, donors, two W&M Business School Teams, NAMI Williamsburg and NAMI Mid-Tidewater), for figuring out the short steps to take toward designing and creating a neighborhood that would serve caregivers and their loved ones living with a diagnosed serious mental illness.

Our Strategic Planning Team Meeting at CDR

The smallest unit? One new family, four unrelated individuals, diagnosed with serious mental illness, living successfully together living in a regular neighborhood. Could we do it? What would we discover?

Could we identify and recruit four unrelated individuals who could live together, get along, support one another, take care of a house, and enjoy a better life?

Yes, we could.

Pioneering Williamsburg Fairweather Lodge Members: Scott, Logan, Steve, and Ben

After knowing and working with two of these gentlemen, as a lay person, no degree in social work, psychology, or psychiatry, for 5 – 7 years, and the families of all four, as a coach, I have learned about humanity. What it takes to live together. A very simple idea: You build your system together.

Celebration of the Opening the Williamsburg Fairweather Lodge (July 2020)

Through the Coalition for Community Living, we have learned about the principles and practices of operating a Fairweather Lodge. A model developed in 1963.

HFV Advisor George Duke with Founding Lodge Member Steve Uzelac and Lodge Coordinator Corey Trench @ 35th Annual Lodge Conference (2019)

Even before we occupied a house, the members prepared a list of house rules and voted on them. They have held weekly meetings. Stayed current on rent. Filed quarterly outcomes reports (on 12 measures) with The Coalition for Community Living. Secured work. Volunteered in the community. On their daily walks, have met 15 neighbors. Experienced no hospitalizations.

What have we learned from operating this single home?

Understanding and acceptance are the key. Next, you mutually support one another. Recently, Steve had a medical test performed. He needed a ride and someone to wait for him. Scott was there.

Not everything goes well. It’s nice to have someone to commiserate with. Tell you it will be okay.

Everyone must pitch in to keep a house in order and clean, whether it’s leaving the kitchen clean as you found it, taking out the garbage, emptying the refrigerator of stale food, cleaning the bathrooms and vacuuming the floors, taking care of the lawn (mowing, leaf blowing, edging), and changing out air filters.

Each week the lodge members review the status of their medication compliance and medical appointments. They keep each other both honest and well.

Caregivers. Members need the support of their caregivers toward becoming independent. That could be financial or emotional support. Sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? The lodge coordinator is a guide, not a parent. Family play an important role in being there for their loved ones. And, their loved loved ones often help them. The goal is to help the members become independent, while realizing the a lodge is about interdependence. In a real sense, the lodge is a new, created family. A microcosm of a neighborhood when you include family caregivers and nearby neighbors.

Families and neighborhoods work because we help each other.

As we consider next steps toward the village environment, we will need this same connection of families. A commitment to each other, in the same way the lodge members commit to each other. When we look at our society we see a society that is connectable by devices, but not necessarily communicating and functioning together. The brilliance of cohousing is that it creates that kind of human connection we remember when growing up in a neighborhood as kids.

When we started the lodge, a virtual lodge, the members were recruiting prospects. They began working together, sharing experiences about their weeks, goals that they hope to fulfill, and their aims for the next week. Over breakfast, we had a one-hour meeting. Weekly we did this. We built ties to one another. We backed each other up and that included me, the lodge coordinator.

Over time, we saw progress. Yes, it took a while. To find the right job. To find the house. To find the other members. We have inched our way into a self-sufficient life that the members will tell you is fun. It has not always been easy.

So, what are we looking for. Members of our community who can accept one another, and all the challenges brought with mental illness, and will pitch in to support one another.

Pre-Covid, we created environments where everyone was together, being together, breaking bread at a restaurant.

Family Dinner at Jimmy’s

We worked with a team of W&M graduate and undergraduate business students, who organized a grand event. We cooked a meal together, played corn hole, and had a workshop as if caregivers and those with a diagnosis were living and sharing together in a Common House. A heart warming event that revealed what was possible.

The Fiji House Event

Seven years ago, I joined the NAMI Williamsburg Board. I presented the idea of developing a village at Eastern State. It was a synthesis of ideas. I wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Press about it. Three years later, the same paper wrote about us.

Novel ideas take time to evolve and improve. They require testing and new inputs. This could be the season for a big next step. I thank all of you who helped us get started, have stuck with us. We will prevail.

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