There are days when Jennyrae Brongo walks out onto the 55 acres she bought in 2016 as an inclusive community farm and no one knows who she is, which she sees as an incredible sign of progress and growth.
“Every year, from the moment I founded this place to the moment I bought this place, every article out there says, ‘It was created by a sister to autism.’ It is so much more than that,” says Brongo, founder of Homesteads for Hope, located on Manitou Road in Spencerport. “We’ve created something that, in the beginning, no one thought was possible.”
She was inspired by the enthusiasm of her non-verbal brother Chucky when he visited the ‘nature’s classroom’ of a farm. Homesteads for Hope’s inclusive approach to farming, for both people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and those without, is unlike any other program in the area. This approach has led to both individual and scalable success. Last season, Homesteads for Hope served about 600 families and had over 3,000 community visitors attend its farming and cooking programs like Ready Set Grow, its store and cafe, pizza grill, and weekly concert nights by the Erie Canal.
According to the nonprofit’s most recent available Form 990, 2019 revenues totaled $574,063 including $478,536 from contributions and grants and $62,219 in program service revenue. Workers with Homesteads for Hope are particularly proud of that revenue; they have heard people refer to programs for people with disabilities as a “drain on resources.” Expenses totaled $401,751. The organization ended the year with $1.8 million in total assets.
Brongo knows demand for her programming remains high, reflecting an ever-creeping crisis among the intellectual and developmental disabilities community. As a result, Homesteads for Hope has expansion plans. It will soon break ground on the Forever Homestead, a renovation to a 200-year-old estate home.
However, to move the dream even further, more support is needed for the partially funded Phase 1 and 2 Pave the Way plans to create a $3 million intentional community model.
“We want it to be truly inclusive, a place to work and learn and grow. And replicable. Between Albany and somewhere in Pennsylvania, there’s nowhere else with a program like this, there’s a huge gap,” says Heather Burroughs, grants and media coordinator with Homesteads for Hope.
The Forever Homestead is the first step along that journey and will triple the impact to the community with 6,000 square feet of usable space. The renovations and additions will give the program a permanent, year-round classroom and teaching kitchen, which is currently held at an offsite location, as well as several transitional residence spaces for graduated students or interns.
Brongo, who also works in construction, is confident the Forever Homestead will be completed in time for a fall harvest celebration, which also coincides with the 200-year anniversary of the Erie Canal.
Among many issues, Brongo and Burroughs identify housing as the biggest one facing the community now. Before aging parents can no longer be caregivers, many families are desperate to find viable options for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
According to Homesteads for Hope, 70 percent of the 6 million adults with these disabilities in the U.S. have no choice but to live with aging parents and many lack full-time programming. With 115 group homes closing last year in New York, families might choose to go with a lackluster or even traumatizing program simply because the wait times are so extreme.
Brongo and her mother had to wait 15 years to find a placement for her brother, who is now 31 years old.
“They said if we didn’t take it, he’s going to go back on the waiting list and because you denied something that was available to him, you go to the bottom of the list,” Brongo says.
Later, from injuries he sustained, they suspected her brother was being abused at the very location they waited so long for him to get in to. Unfortunately, that story is common. An audit of NYS Adult Protective Services programs found nearly 83,000 unique referrals outside of New York City from 2017 to 2020.
Burroughs calls it an “unseen problem” and identifies people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as the largest minority population, but the least supported.
“It’s discrimination. There’s no other way to put it,” she says. “We would not treat any other population this way. They don’t have a choice about where they live, who they live with, what they do during the day, even what they eat sometimes. It’s a total lack of choice.
“Society has hidden this problem away,” adds Burroughs, who is a parent to children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “Years ago, we used to put these people in large institutions, now we’ve spread it out to smaller little neighborhoods. If you’re not allowed to leave your bedroom, or you can’t go outside because there isn’t enough staff, you’re still incredibly isolated.”
Homestead for Hope wants to expand its capabilities even further. Following the Forever Homestead, Phase 1 of the Pave the Way campaign will provide duplex residences for 30 people, and Phase 2 will include an apartment complex that will accommodate 70 people. Other improvements, such as a sensory garden, recreational trail, cabins, a lodge, town square, pond and pool are also in development for the inclusive community model. Capacity growth for staffing and operations is also included as part of the campaign.
“So, it’s kind of like a college campus,” Brongo says. “(When we went to college), we had friends, we learned during the day, maybe we had a campus job or one right down the street in the community. This can be a great transitional stepping stone for a person with a disability who just needed someone to give them a chance.”
The culture and community around Homesteads for Hope feels different than other day programs, Brongo and Burroughs say, because it has people who understand the importance of their work and see the progress.
One apprentice was not a confident speaker at the start of the program but now actively helps customers at the farm store. Another runs the cafe.
“Her family never thought she’d be employable. Alyssa cooks the breakfast, she opens and closes the store, she’s teaching other people how to do it now,” Burroughs says.
That supportive energy extends to the entire group outside of work projects.
“Everybody gets to go to the birthday party and I know that sounds so silly, but some of our kids are never invited to birthday parties. If we threw a birthday party for them, their peers don’t show up. But here, it’s a par-tay,” Burroughs says, emphasizing the last syllable.
She adds that the farm has hosted funerals and weddings as well, and that group homes look forward to their Thursday concert series as a regular event.
While people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, their families, and advocates are naturally supportive of the project, visitors and workers feel the difference as well. One Homestead farmhand left the site for a different opportunity, but ended up returning.
“He said, ‘There’s just nothing like it.’ When you teach somebody how to do something and no one ever thought they could do it, man, that’s like the best feeling every day,” Burroughs says.
They do still need help. Beyond finances, Brongo sees an opportunity for teachers or former teachers with special education experience to help in the classroom. Currently, Homesteads for Hope operates with 12 full- and part-time staff along with 30 volunteers.
Ultimately, Brongo, Burroughs and the others at the community farm hope Rochester can view the project with the same hometown pride they have.
“I was 22 years old. I had this dream of a farm for autism,” Brongo concludes. “I just happened to buy the most beautiful farm in Monroe County. And I’m fighting to keep it and save it and build it every single day. I won’t take my foot off the full throttle until it happens.”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].