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Around Pleasanton: Sunflower Hill making future brighter for autistic adults

Founder Susan Houghton receives nonprofit's 2019 Rainmaker Award

Sunflower Hill, a nonprofit organization determined to provide long-term sustainable housing and care for adults with developmental disabilities, raised $253,000 at its Moonlight in the Vines fundraiser earlier this month.

The gala, held at Casa Real winery in Pleasanton, saw many of the 340 dinner patrons on their feet repeatedly, waving their numbered paddles as they shouted competing bids for multi-course dinners in a private wine cave, a weekend adventure in Costa Rica or four days at a 4-star Squaw Creek resort.

The night started off with quite a buzz as a handmade sunflower quilt garnered a winning bid of $25,000.

At just six years old, Sunflower Hill is the new kid on the block among regional nonprofits. I'm proud to be among those who helped it get started.

As a reporter in the years before she founded Sunflower Hill, I had interviewed Susan Houghton a number of times when she held key communications positions at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Safeway and other public affairs and government relations posts.

One day, she told me about her then-22-year-old son Robby, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2. He had benefited from school and social care programs and strong parental care.

Then the big yellow bus stopped coming. That's how Robby saw it when the bus that regularly took him to the social and public programs he enjoyed ended at age 22. The lifetime care that he would need became his parents' or someone else's responsibility.

His two loving brothers now had their own careers. Robby, who will likely need special care all his life, was now an adult.

"With one in 50 individuals now born with autism and more than 500,000 today like Robby, what will become of these adults in the next decade?" Susan asked me. "Where will they live? What will they do?"

I wrote about her plight and determined search for moms and dads of autistic children and others who would share her zeal and compassion for finding answers.

This is how she started Sunflower Hill, through phone calls, letters and a newspaper column seeking sustainable care for autistic adults.

Hundreds answered the call to help. With their efforts, through the Moonlight fundraiser July 12 and scores of others like it, Sunflower Hill now has the funds to start building a complex at Irby Ranch in Pleasanton. When opened next year, the Stanley Boulevard facility will offer 31 units for intellectually and developmentally disabled adults.

Sunflower Hill also is moving forward with a housing complex to serve 44 adults with developmental disabilities on First Street in Livermore.

Susan, who was named a Tri-Valley Hero in 2014 in the Weekly's annual awards program, was presented with Sunflower Hill's 2019 Rainmaker Award at Moonlight in the Vines this month.

She's in good company. The Rainmaker Award, which honors community leaders, individuals and entities who have been a force for Sunflower Hill, has also gone to Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, the city of Livermore, Pleasanton Councilwoman Kathy Narum and, last year, the city of Pleasanton.

Sunflower Hill, in its six short years, has become a model for special needs living and vocational options.

"There is a movement across America to build long-term residential communities for individuals with special needs," Susan said. "We've seen early innovators like Bittersweet Farms in Ohio, Sweetwater Spectrum in Sonoma and Friends of Children with Special Needs in Fremont that are truly making the world a better place."

Sunflower Hill hopes to add more similar communities in the greater East Bay, not unlike "senior living" complexes, where individuals with autism and other developmental delays can live, work, play and thrive.

And why not? Doesn't everyone deserve a full life?

Editor's note: Jeb Bing is editor emeritus for the Pleasanton Weekly. His "Around Pleasanton" columns typically run on the second and fourth Fridays of every month.

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