Unconventional Family Works To Change Lives

Dec. 28--FERGUSON TOWNSHIP -- From the dining room of the white house on a corner of Blue Course Drive, Dave Hull happily points to the garden he custom-designed in the backyard. "I love the garden," he said.

Inside, the dining room itself doubles as an office of sorts.

"This is where we kind of live as a group -- all the clutter is in here," Hull said.

While a well-loved garden and in-house clutter may be typical, the family is not. The house is one of about 90 Fairweather Lodges in the United States, according to the Coalition for Community Living, of Michigan. It's home to Hull and three others, who say the arrangement is working very well.

"It's amazing what the four of us can do when we put our minds to it," Hull said.

When Sherry Skelton moved in, she was skeptical about whether it would last. After a 10- day trial period, she called Fran McDermid, program director with Strawberry Fields, to tell her she didn't think it would work out. Now, Skelton is glad that she stayed.

"It gives you hope. It inspires you," Skelton said.

Fairweather Lodges provide people with mental health issues a home and support network while they make the transition back to the community. The homes get their name from psychologist George Fairweather, who started the first lodge in California in 1963. His research found people making the transition from a hospital to a community have more success when they aren't alone, but are in a group with a support network.

Lodge residents work together to run the house and form a home-based business. In this case, Hull and his roommates are in the process of starting a peer counseling program. Hull said they'll be like big brothers helping others in situations similar to what they went through.

"Kind of being a friend that I know I could have used," Hull said.

The Centre County Fairweather Lodge got started in 2006 with a $361,000 grant from the state Department of Community and Economic Development that the county applied for to buy the house. Local nonprofit service agency Strawberry Fields owns the home, but the residents are responsible for its upkeep. They also pay rent -- up to 30 percent of their income.

McDermid said the idea for the home came from the affordable housing study that was completed for Centre County in 2005. One of the recommendations was to have a Fairweather Lodge.

McDermid said it took Strawberry Fields a while to find a home that met the criteria for a Fairweather Lodge: a nice house, near a bus route, with fairly equally sized bedrooms. Because township zoning only allows three unrelated people in a home, once a house was found, Strawberry Fields had to apply for a variance.

"So we weren't flying under any radar," McDermid said.

Initially the proposal encountered opposition, McDermid said. But the zoning variance received approval in January 2008. McDermid credited the neighbors with being willing to listen and find out about the lodge and who would be living in it. She said another concern was maintenance and whether the house would be kept up well. It is, which is in keeping with a goal of having it fit in with the neighborhood.

The four people living in the home now are the second group. Barbara Puzycki, one of the four, said the chemistry between them works. For her, that means not being isolated.

"This is a great opportunity for anybody," she said. "They can learn a lot."

Hull and the fourth resident, Scott Fawcett, recently completed training to become certified peer counselors. The group is now working on an organizational presentation as part of getting the program set up.

Fawcett moved into the house about six months ago, after he was finding himself more and more isolated. He was referred by Housing Transitions Inc., of State College.

"Basically it got to the point where I broke down and couldn't do it," he said of his situation.

McDermid approached him about moving into the lodge, and his first reaction was that he couldn't live with other people. But, he said, he decided to try it.

Now, he said, if he starts to slip into depression, his housemates won't let him -- they knock on the door, send up the resident cocker spaniel, Lexie, or call McDermid.

"They really screw up a good depression," he said.

Fawcett said he was ready to change before he moved in, and now he is in a place where that can happen.

Once the Medicaid-funded peer counseling is in place, Puzycki and Skelton will handle the office management, with the business run out of Strawberry Fields. They're also looking into setting up a transportation service and a photography business offering affordable portraits.

The group had a successful yard sale that paid for a trip to this year's Fairweather Lodge Conference in Erie. They're planning a second one, including crafts that McDermid and Skelton make, to finance a trip to California for next year's conference.

McDermid worked with the residents to get things set up and helps out as needed, but doesn't live there.

"It's about this group coming together and figuring out how they want this house to run," she said.

Eventually, they could start a second Fairweather Lodge in the county, with one of the current residents trained and ready to take over McDermid's job.

"Ultimately," she said, "my job is to work myself out of a job."

Anne Danahy can be reached at 231-4648.