Riverbrook and the Berkshires are models for people of all abilities
This residence serves women with disabilities and is a vibrant part of Stockbridge's community. Francesca Brown setting the table for lunch at Stockbridge Town Hall.
Photos by Scott Barrow
Louisa Millonzi is petite with bright eyes and a crisp voice. Yet she is a force, eloquent, and at the hub of everything in the serene expanse of Stockbridge’s Riverbrook, a group home for women with disabilities. Although Millonzi has only lived at the former Gilded Age “cottage” for three and a half years—the average length of stay is 30 years—the 29-year-old is fully enmeshed in life there. In fact, she’s ready to take on a larger role within the place she now calls home.
“I love doing all of the workshops; my first favorite is music, and I actually really like doing my vocational work,” she says. “I like getting paid. I’m saving my money for a good cause—my public-speaking career.”
Millonzi doesn’t want just any public speaking gig. She aspires to be the spokeswoman for Riverbrook, founded in 1957 as a school for girls with disabilities who had aged out of traditional schools. A cornerstone of Riverbrook’s mission is integration. “These ladies are known in the community,” says Anne Roy, vocational director. “There is a real sense of pride in being a Riverbrook woman.”
Opportunities abound. Some residents are employed locally at places like the Red Lion Inn, Marian Fathers, and the Stockbridge Town Hall. Many pursue painting and dance instruction. One has already had two art exhibits. Above all, they are encouraged to know their importance. For instance, Stockbridge Selectman Deb McMenamy paid a visit to the home prior to the town vote in May and answered questions about the ballot. “There are 13 voters here, and they understand and are very passionate about the issues in their community,” says Roy.
Riverbrook and the region itself have always been ahead of the curve when it comes to serving people with disabilities. July marks the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, which “prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications, and governmental activities.” The culture in the Berkshires has a long history of acceptance and integration of people with “different abilities,” says State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli.
“They are part of the fabric of this community. They have the same aspirations as anyone else. We need to keep this in mind at budget time.”
The struggles at Riverbrook aren’t just around budgets and funding. Because it is larger than an average residential home (of four to five residents), Beacon Hill has a hard time seeing the giant cottage as a “residence.” This regulatory identity crisis in Boston often has executive director Deborah Francome on the phone with the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services explaining how life at Riverbrook is a far cry from an institutionalized setting, which requires greater oversight. Recently, too, states outside of Massachusetts have begun “reclaiming” residents that they could not serve or place in a home 20 or 30 years ago. Thus, there are several residents whose funding (from other states) is being pulled from places like Riverbrook in an effort to bring them back to their home state.
“Other states look at the dollars. They see the body, not the person,” says Pignatelli.
The Berkshires presents an alchemy of awareness and resources—including several smaller residential homes as well many programs for people of all ages. According to the 2013 census, 15 percent of non-institutionalized residents living in the county were classified as having a disability, compared to the state average of 11.3 percent. Margaret Keller, director of the 25-year-old Great Barrington-based Community Access to the Arts (CATA), has her own theories as to why this region is a model for community support.
“The arts draw people in a different way, the whole community is called into being,” she says. “The majority of our supporters do not have a direct connection to “disability” as it were. They’re part of this larger cultural moment to increase visibility and change public perception.”
The numbers from CATA’s annual May gala at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox provide potent proof that there is no stopping the tide of support. More than 800 people came out to the event to support programming for CATA’s 600 participants, who are enrolled in more than 1,000 classes offered in visual and performing arts. Millonzi and some of her housemates were part of that production, demonstrating their dance and tap skills and sophisticated brand of humor.
Despite the occasional bout of nerves, Millonzi will continue to pursue a public life. “I don’t really know what the next ten years will bring me yet,” she says. “I have always wanted to help people with disabilities find a voice and to have that voice be heard.”