When Steve moved to Burlington, Vermont in 1994, The Howard Center became his official service provider—a relationship which continued until his death in 2015. In addition to helping Steve form important connections to his new community, this progressive and innovative agency also worked with us to establish what would become the two cornerstones of Steve’s vibrant life in Burlington: ownership of his own condo, his “forever home,” and inclusion in the mainstream workforce.
Steve’s move to Burlington was just one of many he’d endured since leaving our family home in Hanover, New Hampshire, at age twenty-two. Over the years he’d lived in five different locations with five different care-givers. I longed to provide stability for my son.
In February 2002, Steve’s case manager at The Howard Center alerted me to an exciting possibility for Steve. The Burlington Housing Authority (BHA) operated a program which issued home ownership vouchers and mortgage assistance to low income residents. While Steve easily met the BHA’s income eligibility guidelines, he also had to attend a full day home ownership workshop before becoming pre-approved for a mortgage.
On the day of the workshop the program director welcomed the fifty or so participants and then asked each individual to stand, introduce themselves and state why they wanted to become a homeowner. Steve shifted in his seat. I could tell he was getting ready. Another chance to be in the spotlight.
“I Steve Cohen,” he announced when his turn came. “I want house. I no like moving. I stay in my house forever.”
My face glowed with pride as the audience applauded…With his simple heartfelt statement Steve gave a face to a new kind of homeowner.
Three months later I joined Steve around a crowded conference table at the BHA as he signed multiple documents making him the proud owner of a three-bedroom condo in Burlington’s Old North End neighborhood. No more rented apartments, No more living in someone else’s home. At his open house in June he proudly showed “my house” to his many guests. From that point on whenever a care-giver moved on Steve would say: “I teeny bit sad (insert name) leave, but I stay here forever, right?” And he did.
Steve’s inclusion in the mainstream workforce actually began long before he moved to Burlington. In August of 1987, a month before he turned twenty-one and still living with me in Hanover, Steve was invited to become part of a work enclave lead by a job coach from the local agency which supported people with developmental disabilities. The enclave was situated at the Hanover Food Coop. After several months of on-the-job training Steve “graduated” from the work crew and was hired directly by the store—a milestone in that he became the first person with developmental disabilities to be employed by the Coop. This gained him a front page story in the local newspaper, The Valley News, which included the photo you see here.
Steve’s move to Burlington proved fortuitous with regard to his work life. Vermont was an early leader in shifting from sheltered workshops, where people with disabilities work only with others like them, to mainstream employment. In the 1980s, a grant was awarded to the University of Vermont for the purpose of building programs for integrated employment in partnership with state disability agencies. Eventually no public dollars were used for anything other than integrated employment—not even work enclaves. Therefore when Steve became a client of The Howard Center, their employment developer began the search for a position similar to the one he’d held at the Coop. When the Healthy Living Market in South Burlington expressed an interest in Steve, the developer submitted his resume and arranged for an interview. Steve was hired.
In 2004, Steve had a stroke and after several days in the local hospital was released to a nearby rehabilitation center. One afternoon the market’s founder and owner Katy, walked into the day room where Steve and I sat working on a jigsaw puzzle. I watched as Steve ran to Katy and wrapped his arms around her.
“Katy! I miss you!”
My eyes filled along with Katy’s. “I miss you too, Steve. Everybody misses you. You need to get better fast.”
“I will. You have welcome back party for me?”
Katy’s eyes crinkled in a smile. “You better believe it.” Then she handed Steve a card filled with staff signatures. Steve barely had time to look at it before his favorite nurse came to take him for a physical therapy session.
Katy walked over to me and we exchanged hugs. “Thanks so much for coming, Katy. Seeing you means everything to Steve.”
Katy’s hands grabbed onto my shoulders and her brown eyes held mine. “Linda, I just want you to know, when Steve is ready, we want him back.” She paused before continuing. “Regardless of his capacity we will make whatever adjustments necessary. I can’t imagine Healthy Living without Steve.”
Steve was so fortunate to be supported by The Howard Center during the the many years he lived in Burlington. Our family will be forever grateful to the committed individuals whose dedication to Steve helped him attain his goals and live his fullest life. Stay tuned for how sales of HEART OF THIS FAMILY will enhance the work of this amazing organization, especially during these current challenging times.
“This is a memoir across the span of a lifetime that speaks with the honesty, informality, and sometimes raw emotion of a voice…about how families and family members come together and sometimes apart…This is not about lost opportunities and sacrifice. It is about the transformative spirit that energizes those we love and that love us. It is one family’s story about a mother’s love and a son who lived an amazing life.”Bob Bick, CEO The Howard Center, Burlington, VT