Camphill Foundation

@camphillfoundation | contributor
Camphill Foundation supports 15 vibrant lifesharing communities in the U.S. and Canada, where people with and without disabilities live and work together in nurturing, inclusive, and creative environments. There are more than 120 Camphill communities worldwide in 22 countries. Learn more at www.camphillfoundation.org.
Community Voices

What I Learned About Ability...

What I Learned About Ability from Spending a Year Living With People with Disabilities

By Anna Falch

On August 24, 2015, I boarded an airplane in Frankfurt, Germany, as an excited—but nervous—service year volunteer. I was bound for Plowshare Farm in southern New Hampshire, more than 3700 miles from home. Plowshare Farm is part of the Camphill movement of communities where people with and without special needs live and work together.

My brother, Toby, had already spent a year at Plowshare Farm, so I knew a little about what to expect from him. I had few personal experiences with people with disabilities. Looking back, I think that was good. My mind wasn’t primed with prejudices about autism or Down syndrome. When I arrived, I simply found a place where everyone was who they were, and was appreciated for it.

We were seven volunteers coming to Plowshare Farm that year and we all had different tasks. Working with people of all abilities, I had daily responsibilities, like caring for farm animals, harvesting vegetables, tending the fields, cleaning the barn, splitting and stacking firewood, and helping prepare community lunches using fresh produce from the gardens.

Another important part of each day was sharing chores and social time in our houses. Thirteen of us lived together in Artaban House. Some had disabilities, and some did not. My housemates and I took turns preparing meals, baking, and cleaning. Each of us had something to do and contribute. We also did creative projects, like handicraft work for Halloween or Mardi Gras, choreographing dances, and painting. We spent quality time together.

I learned many things at Plowshare Farm—some I expected (learning the basics of agriculture, improving my English) and others were a surprise (learning how to brush somebody else’s teeth, and how to troubleshoot the car we used to get around). And I learned a lot about what ability is and how to understand, accept, and support others.

When I first arrived at Plowshare Farm, my instincts were to jump in and help when I saw somebody with special needs struggling. For example, one of my housemates had the job of setting the breakfast table. Some mornings, he took longer or things got in his way and he became frustrated. I learned to watch closely. There were times when I should and could help, and others when it was better to wait.

I had to find the right balance of lifting up without carrying—to give as much support as someone needed but not so much that it prevented them from using their abilities to their full potential. At the same time, I learned the importance of taking care of myself. I learned to ask for and accept help when I needed it.

I learned to look for the strengths and talents that can go unnoticed. I discovered that all of my housemates had special gifts and sharing them brought joy. None of us came to Plowshare Farm to be taken care of. We chose to live there because it made life better for ourselves and others.

I remember one day, in particular, when I was sad. It was my free day. I went upstairs to the living room and found one of my friends sitting on the couch. She needs help with tasks most people take for granted, like chores and personal hygiene. But her spirit is remarkable—kind, loving, and open—in a way that’s not very common in our society.

I sat down next to her, laid my head on her shoulder, and told her, “I’m so sad.” I couldn’t have explained why. There were many worries in my head. But my explanation wasn’t necessary. She felt that my heart was heavy. She put her arm around me and said, “Don’t worry. I’m here for you,” and then gave me a kiss on my head.

It was one of the most touching moments I have ever experienced. She gave me stability—just by being there for me. I treasure this memory! It reminds me how rare and special compassion is. And it inspires me to always keep working on being present for others.

Almost three years after returning to Germany, I still think about my time at Plowshare Farm many days. My experiences there will always be part of me and influence how I meet others. They give me hope. In a world full of worries, it can be healing to see the ability in every person and to know that—by lifting each other—we can make a fulfilling life possible.

Camphill lifesharing communities provide a unique model of care for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as autism, Down syndrome, and others. To learn about volunteer opportunities at Camphill communities and the Camphill College Loan Support Program, open to eligible applicants, visit Camphill Association of North America’s website at www.camphill.org/clsp.

Helping My Daughter With Down Syndrome Find an Inclusive Community

This March 21st — World Down Syndrome Day — I’ll be celebrating the many achievements of my daughter, Annie. Annie is an accomplished textile artist. Her work has been selected for the upcoming FLOURISH exhibition at the Flynn Center in Burlington, Vermont. Annie and her boyfriend, Chris, recently traveled to California for their dream vacation. Annie has diverse interests, from snowboarding to needle felting. Art by Annie Jackson. Annie also has Down Syndrome, a chromosomal condition that may describe her, but falls short of defining everything she is and can be. Today, Annie is deeply happy. She has an amazing community to call home. But this wasn’t always the case. A decade ago, my daughter was in crisis. Annie had enrolled in a program to promote independent living among people with disabilities. She received two years of on-campus education in independent living skills. Then she transitioned to a private apartment and received staff support every few days. Annie could walk to the grocery store from her apartment. The bus line ran past her door. The YMCA was a few blocks away. There was a theater around the corner. On paper, her surroundings were integrated and inclusive. Annie was living the dream to which so many people with disabilities aspire. But there is more to inclusion than “checking the boxes” for independent living. Though technically integrated into her community, Annie was emotionally and socially isolated. The effects left my vibrant young daughter almost unrecognizable. By age 26, Annie rarely left her apartment. Five feet tall, she weighed 230 pounds. She became profoundly depressed and took eight different daily medications. Her teeth were abscessed. Her weight made walking difficult. Her few relationships were exploitive. Ultimately, her physician told us she could no longer take responsibility for Annie’s care if she remained in her living situation. Our family began an intensive search to help Annie find a healthy alternative. We knew she needed a community where she would find acceptance and true connections with the people around her. We understood that Annie needed life skills, and a life filled with healthy relationships and opportunities to use the skills she acquired. We recognized Annie’s need for independence, but also the importance of an environment where she could depend on others and where others could count on her. Through a relative, we found Heartbeet Lifesharing on a beautiful hillside in Hardwick, Vermont. Initially, I worried it was too far from home. Set in an iconic rural landscape, perhaps Heartbeet was too remote. It was the opposite of Annie’s previous home. Despite some skepticism, we visited one hot August afternoon. Our stay revealed a lively, relationship-rich environment — 160 acres of dignity and opportunity, thoroughly integrated into the wider community and the world. A place where people with and without developmental disabilities live and work together, Heartbeet is part of the Camphill movement. Community members share meals and experiences. They enjoy festivals and a rich cultural and artistic life. They work together at textile studios, a therapeutic farm and garden devoted to sustainable agriculture, and a community kitchen dedicated to artisanal food. Since moving, Annie has reclaimed her happiness and confidence. She walks — or snowshoes — miles each day. She now weighs 120 pounds. She works part-time at a local artisanal cheesemaker, and takes personal pride whenever they win a gold medal. Annie is happily interdependent on the people around her. She volunteers downtown at a weekly community lunch and votes at the Town Meeting. Annie and her boyfriend have frequent dinner dates in local restaurants. She serves as a member of the Heartbeet Lifesharing Board of Trustees. Joining an intentional community has given Annie a new life. It has allowed her to build bridges to wherever she wants to go. Annie is proud of her abilities, and is eager to share them with others. Coincidentally, that’s what this World Down Syndrome Day is about: what people with Down Syndrome can bring to their communities. With Annie’s support, I am sharing her story in celebration. To the many people silently suffering from social isolation within seemingly integrated communities, Annie can bring hope. May Annie’s experiences inspire genuine inclusion of those who are vulnerable to exclusion and isolation. May Annie remind us how much we have to gain from making personal connections with people of all abilities. May she expand opportunities for all to contribute to communities, whatever our strengths and weaknesses.