Finding a haven at Greenacre
‘‘We want it to be as much like a real home as possible for the boys,” said Cindi Calos as she entered the living quarters of Eddie House.
The comfortable home is spotless and filled with activity as boys do homework, play instruments or work on computers. One young man with Down Syndrome is treated especially kindly by the others who greet him.
Eddie House is one of five residences at Greenacre in Sebastopol. It is where severely emotionally disturbed and developmentally disabled boys and young men aged 8 to 22 find a haven.
Greenacre has a school and a vocational training center as well as five homes for 34 boys. In addition to the residents, 25 learning disabled or disturbed kids are sent to Greenacre by public school districts that don’t have the resources to meet their needs. Six vans pick them up each morning and bring them to Greenacre School.
The boys are looked after by a staff of 75. Each home has clinical therapists, social workers and other staff. They get individual and group therapy as well as an education.
“Their needs vary widely,” said clinical director Richard Durr. “We meet them where they are.”
The boys get instruction, with credit and reward systems built in, as Greenacre tries to prepare them for mainstreaming back into the public schools or for independent living in the community. A measure of success is when one of the boys can graduate from a public high school.
Sometimes it takes just “some polishing” according to Durr, but sometimes it takes a great deal of one-on-one work to get a young man to the point where he can cope with life’s basics and even earn a living. Some students have autism, some have mental health problems such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, while others have been severely traumatized.
(l to r) Rich Aguirre, Cindi Calos, Sue Fowler and Benjie Swenson-Aguirre run the Greenacre Homes and School their parents started in 1975. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Greenacre started out in 1975 as a facility for disabled adult women, but turned to serving young males in 1980 after realizing it was a critical need that few could fill. Ben and Nancy Aguirre founded Greenacre, and now it’s run by their children, who grew up there and are now in their 40s. The two brothers and two sisters run different departments of Greenacre, and some of their adult children also work there. The school is located on several acres on Atkinson Street that include an apple orchard.
“The students garden, and they use the apples for juicing,” said Cindi Calos, the financial director, one of the four siblings. The vocational training center teaches landscaping, gardening, bike repair, how to start a business (some of the students have a coffee cart), and woodworking and construction skills.
Students recently constructed a koi pond on the property, sell the donated bikes after they fix them and have remodeled some of the buildings on campus. The boys also have learned to make drums and sell them online and at local music stores.
They also learn life skills such as how to handle finances and how to shop for clothes and food. They work with local businesses and groups, at the county food bank and have done janitorial work at Apple Valley Convalescent Hospital.
Some of the boys have been sent there by judges. A couple are on probation. Others come from Child Protective Services, rescued from abusive or dysfunctional homes. Some are referred from Mental Health Services. Federal, state and county money pays for their care, but Greenacre also relies on donations.
“One of our students became an Eagle Scout, and about 20 Eagle Scouts showed up and built a playground for us at one of the residences,” said Benjamin Swenson-Aguirre, Greenacre’s executive director.
“We are lucky here because we have very low turnover in staff. Our directors have been here 20 years, and many of the teachers and social workers have been here over 10 years. We do everything we can for the boys.“
A lot of alumni come back to visit. At Eddie House some came back to join the residents in a weekly basketball game in a nearby church gym. Some parents come to visit, sometimes court ordered supervised visits.
Greenacre staff can point to work that has saved hundreds of boys over the years and turned them into productive adults. The secret behind the transformation is simple if not easy — a safe place to live, nurturing care, keen attention to their emotional needs and a carefully tailored education.