Steven, a participant at Harbor House, can’t decide what he likes best about being there. He could only say he “loves it all and loves everybody there.” For the last 15 years, Steven, who has Downs Syndrome, has attended the day program for individuals with disabilities.
Marla Moore, Assistant Director of Development, said Harbor House has supported Steven and his mother through hard times, including cancer. “When he was diagnosed, it was not a good prognosis,” said Moore. “He stopped coming to Harbor House for a while during treatment, but when his mom told us he was depressed and not leaving the house, we got him coming back here. You would never know he was battling cancer, and feeling sad,” said Moore. “He is a light at Harbor House. He is so positive. When you walk in the room, he is first to greet you and smiles from ear to ear.” Fortunately, Steven beat the odds, has been living cancer-free for the last few years, and still coming to Harbor House daily and working his job at Harbor House’s bulk mail facility.
But Steven’s mom credits Harbor House with helping her son have hope and to thrive despite everything he went through. In addition to giving Steven a place to go with a supportive environment, the staff, including his Program Manager Jessie, played a big role in his success, even taking him home or driving him to appointments to help out when his mother had to work.
Steven’s mom confided to Jessie that she could not have gotten her son through everything without Harbor House. “I don’t know how I would have done it,” she said. For Moore, it is Steven and other participants at Harbor House who “make you want to wake up and come to work.”
Harbor House’s origins can be traced back nearly 30 years to a group of 11 parents, all children with disabilities. “When kids with disabilities turn 21, they lose most, if not all, of the resources and support services they had been getting from JCPS, explained Moore. “Most don’t go to college, and some can’t work, so their children were literally watching television 24 hours a day; not engaged or productive,” she said.
Moore said those 11 parents believed their children deserved better when they aged out. From less than a dozen young adults in the basement of a church, Harbor House has grown to its current 102 participants in the building constructed in 2001 in Louisville’s South End.
Harbor House participants have a wide range of disabilities – from cognitive to physical to brain injury, and ages – from 19 to 75. Moore said the experience of Harbor House is transformative for most participants.
Moore described one participant who came to Harbor House with behaviors like self-harming, picking her skin in anxiety, and very low social skills. “When she came to us – in our eyes, we didn’t do anything special except open our doors to welcome her,” said Moore. “But 6 to 8 months later, her case worker was amazed at her transformation. Previously, she had sores all over her body from picking her skin and she would not interact with anyone. Her worker couldn’t believe it was the same person walking into cooking class,” said Moore. “She came to Harbor House and just blossomed.”
“Our philosophy is to foster independence,” said Moore, something that is opposite of their lived experience. “Their entire lives they’ve been told what to wear, what to eat, this is where you sit, this is what you can learn. They may have been told you can’t work or do this or that because of your disability, but at Harbor House we start with the assumption that you can do anything. If you want a job, we’ll help you. Want to learn to cook or do laundry? We’ll help you. They may come in non-verbal and leave speaking words; that is huge. They may have been told they are totally unemployable and we find them a job. It’s amazing.”
Harbor House participants are supported through a government waiver, said Moore, but that only pays for them walking into the more-than-8,000 square-foot facility, not the daily field trips and numerous extracurriculars that are part of Harbor House, such as cooking classes, walking, arts and crafts, gardening, volunteer work with Dare to Care, and more. The facility also helps participants with community integration, said Moore.
“There is still a taboo on people with disabilities. People don’t know how to act around them or treat them. It’s not a lack of compassion but a lack of education. We teach them life skills others might take for granted, like a trip to McDonald’s, something that at first blush might seem silly. They need to learn how to approach a cashier, order, give the right money, make change and proper etiquette.”
Grants, private donations and fundraising are essential for Harbor House to do what they do. The annual Ken-Ducky Derby (KDD), the organization’s largest annual fundraiser, involves donors buying rubber ducks to race on the Ohio River. In its 16 years, the KDD has grown from 14,000 ducks to a projected 45,000 ducks this year, netting the organization approximately $200,000.
Giving Harbor House participants a sanctuary where they can feel free to be themselves is a huge part of what helps them to thrive, said Moore. “It’s just such a happy, judgment-free zone. It lets them be independent and be who they are. Sadly, a lot of our participants don’t live with family or have family anymore,” she said.
Moore recalls when she first began her job at Harbor House three years ago, she innocently asked a participant about Thanksgiving plans. They looked upset at first and said I don’t do Thanksgiving with my family, but then brightened. “It’s OK because I’m going to Harbor House for Thanksgiving, and Harbor House is my family,” she said. “I had only been working here two months, and that’s when I realized how important Harbor House is. We are everything to them.”