For most families raising children, the path to adulthood is traditional and well-defined. Children are enrolled in kindergarten, one grade follows the next and a quick twelve years later, college applications are distributed with the click of the send button.
Grade-point averages and bank balances might limit choices, but there are options for everyone who chooses to continue their education or pursue a trade after high school. The transition to independence is bolstered with dorm rooms or apartments where young adults can establish their identities and begin to make their own lives.
Opportunities to build skills and gain independence are not so easy or clear-cut for the families of adult children with special needs. Susan Houghton discovered this when her son, Robby, aged out of the California school system last year, at the age of 22.
Diagnosed with autism when he was 2 years old, Robby was successful in the public school system, surrounded by teachers and aides who challenged him daily to interact with people, develop his verbal skills and use his natural artistic ability.
As Robby approached his final year of high school, Houghton's research into continuing education programs for individuals with autism was disheartening.
"I was shocked to find there was nothing available," she said. "That's not to say there aren't programs out there, but every program that was appropriate for Robby was impacted, or too far away. Waiting lists can be up to three years long."
Houghton pointed out that Robby excelled in his last year of high school, part of a transition program that included life skills and job training, but since he graduated, Robby's lack of exposure to new people and experiences has resulted in diminished verbal skills.
"The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Tri-Valley's excellent special education programs provided Robby with abilities to help him succeed," she explained. "But what was the point of all that if he can't use them going forward?"
Cindy Everson was equally concerned.
As the mother of two autistic boys, Shane and Joe Everson have worked with the Pleasanton Unified School District for 15 years to make sure their sons received the services they are entitled to. With 18-year-old Shane set to graduate from Amador Valley High School this month, Everson said she was dismayed to find there was no clear plan for these kids who are growing in age and number.
"One in 68 American children are diagnosed with autism each year," she pointed out. "500,000 autistic children will become adults in the next decade, and that number doesn't include people with other disabilities. We are educated and proactive parents, and we were at a loss as to how to proceed. Just imagine how parents without resources must feel."
Houghton and a group of local parents and community leaders recognized it was up to them to create opportunities for their adult children and others with special needs, opportunities that go beyond day programs and field trips.
In 2012, Sunflower Hill was founded to start that process. The nonprofit organization is working to develop a housing community that will give its residents a place to build a whole life independent of their biological families, a goal that got a lot closer to reality when Concentric Development donated a 1.5-acre parcel just off Stanley Boulevard in Pleasanton.
With land secured, Sunflower Hill is hoping that a 40-unit development can be built there. It would include studio, one-bedroom and four-bedroom options for residents who would have many different needs and abilities.
Plans for the project are just now being prepared and it is hoped city planning staff, the Planning Commission and then the City Council will endorse the plan later this year.
"The concept is based on a senior living-type facility," Everson explained. "The location is ideal -- close to downtown and near lots of community events. I keep imagining the people in this development getting to walk downtown to the dairy and enjoying music in the park, then going home to live with their friends, becoming a family."
Keeping the residents close to the community is a key component to the goals of Sunflower Hill.
"Our original focus was only residential," Houghton said, "but we quickly realized there are many other needs we can help fulfill. Continued education, finding a vocation and making social connections are all part of a fulfilling life."
Everson concurs, pointing out that individuals with special needs have a lot to offer their communities.
"Our kids don't need just busy work, they need direction," she said. "They need to feel valuable, and we believe our kids have the potential to be involved with vocational tracks that will help them become participating members of the city they live in."
To that end, Everson is engaged in conversations with the president and the director of disabilities at Las Positas College in Livermore, hoping to expand the educational opportunities for young adults like Shane and Robby.
The college officials are very aware of the need for more programs due to the increasing number of students coming to them with significant special education needs, according to Everson, who referred to the rising numbers as a "tidal wave."
"The certificate programs for kids at the community colleges are two-year programs," she said. "Some offer three or four courses for kids with special needs. We are looking at the possibility of one-, two- or three-year tracks for the kids who can learn, just not at the same pace as everyone else."
Vocational tracks could lead to certifications in fields including computer programming, culinary arts or horticulture. Cooking and gardening skills could be quite useful at Sunflower Hill's newest endeavor, an edible garden at Hagemann Ranch in Livermore.
Lynn Monica, vice president of the Sunflower Hill Board of Directors, has spearheaded the planning and development of the garden with fellow board member Chris Bogert.
"Hagemann Ranch is a 5-acre historic parcel of land owned by the city of Livermore," Monica explained. "We saw it as the perfect place to build a garden for the community, but it is also a tremendous opportunity to build programs that will give special needs children and adults something to do during the day that can eventually help them gain more independence."
Granted a 1-acre parcel in the beginning of April, Sunflower Hill broke garden ground a week later.
Working with the Heritage Guild to maintain historical consistency, Sunflower Hill, the kids they represent and many volunteers have already prepped the hard earth and planted nearly two-thirds of the area designated for fruits and vegetables including tomatoes, corn, squash, berries and, of course sunflowers -- which will line the front along Olivina Avenue.
In addition to planter boxes and a variety of gardens, plans include a green house, chicken coops and an outdoor kitchen for learning to make meals. Monica said the infrastructure will all be completed in the next few months.
Bogert and Monica are both graduates of the Alice Waters Edible Schoolyard Program, a five-day program designed to expose educators to "the core principles and practical tools for bringing academic subjects to life in the kitchen, garden and lunchroom."
Sunflower Hill is the first to take the lessons learned at the Edible Schoolyard and adapt them to a special needs program.
"This is really about educating the kids," Monica said. "We want to show them where food comes from, help them to understand about healthy eating and teach them cooking and gardening skills."
Monica envisions a time when the kids will eventually take ownership of the garden, selling plants and produce, taking food home and donating leftovers to local low-income food pantries, all of which will help cement a relationship between special needs individuals, the communities in which they live and the world beyond.
Those involved with Sunflower Hill see these partnerships as imperative for the future.
Nationwide there are only 82 programs similar to what is planned for Sunflower Hill, 12 of which are in California. But across the nation, the wait-lists and the limited options are no longer acceptable.
"The pendulum has swung," Houghton said. "In the past, if these kids left their parents' house, they were placed in group homes often built by parents for their children. But group homes, even when they are great, are privately funded. They can go away."
In contrast, Sunflower Hill at Irby Ranch hopes to be 100% publicly funded through tax credits and other potential funding, and that its rooms will be filled.
"We need three to four times as many programs as we have today," continued Houghton. "Even now Sunflower Hill is actively looking for more land, potential areas to build another community in the Tri-Valley."
"This hasn't been easy," Everson added. "But when I think how many doors have opened in the past three years, I feel like this is what we are supposed to be doing. These kids deserve the opportunity to leave home, to have independence. We want their parents to be able to let go of their kids; it's a normal experience. Everyone should have a chance to grow."