Article originally from Joy in the Community and Beyond
Although he could make his wants and needs known quite effectively, Steven had a hard time verbalizing his communication. He rarely used any words in his speech. The first few weeks that he lived at Benjamin's Hope, he used no words. Then the alpacas arrived. When this young man is interested in something, he stands very still. That made the alpacas comfortable around him and they all walked around him. The director looked at him and asked, “How are you feeling?” Steven looked at her with a huge smile and said, “I am happy!” That was the first time she had heard him speak.
Benjamin's Hope is a community within a community. Adults with disabilities, such as autism, have a place where they can live and grow in a comfortable setting, yet interact with the community that surrounds them. The 40-acre campus is geared towards community involvement and interaction. Krista Mason, the executive director of Benjamin's Hope, says that there is an urgent need of connectedness (a meaningful day, a place of friendship) where the residents can feel understood. In reality, families often find it hard to connect and they end up feeling isolated and lonely. The biggest need for all is met at Benjamin's Hope by being a place of connecting with God and people. It addresses what we all need, a safe place to live along with purposeful work and community.
A garden and fruit stand will be on the campus for the community to enjoy and be involved in. There are also walking trails, blueberries around, as well as opportunities for all to participate in educational offerings, worship, farm animals and more. The vision is to create a place for people with and without disabilities to connect in a meaningful way.
The dream for Benjamin's Hope started with Mason’s youngest son, Ben, who was diagnosed with autism. Like many, he was developing normally for the first year and a half of life. After that he began a rapid regression, and by the age of two was diagnosed with autism. At that stage of life they were not really thinking about what his adult life would look like, but over the years there was a gradual understanding that Ben's needs were not being met and that he would need a level of support that was significant in his adult years.
When Ben was four years old he was in an educational program for 40 hours a week. Mason began having thoughts about how wonderful it would be to have a faith community at a farm that was built around a common belief and a place of grace and acceptance and incorporated farming activities. She wasn't sure Ben would need it, but she did share the idea with her father-in-law. When Ben was nine, her father-in-law was again visiting and asked, “How far are you on that farm idea?”
She said, “I haven't started.”
He said, “It's time to start.” That was 10 years ago.
Mason spent the first two years researching what programs existed around the country, what worked and what didn't work with people with autism. She visited different models, just gathering information, absorbing and observing. She thought about what kind of a life would be the best match for Ben from all of the models. The Masons moved to New Jersey from Columbus, Ohio, because of the programs they had available for Ben. She explored the feasibility of doing this type of program in New Jersey, but the cost of living was very different and it would have been a lot more expensive. Her husband then received a call from Perrigo in Allegan. He grew up in Grand Rapids, so it was like going home for him to move back.
Mason shared some of what she has seen God do saying, “This has truly been a spiritual journey; Ben's diagnosis, everything I thought I knew about Ben was erased and replaced with this word autism that I didn't know much about. It was a life-changing experience, where everything was defined around autism for us. It was a dark spiritual time for me. I was wrestling with God asking what he wanted for Ben and our family. When Ben was 2, I was reading Jeremiah 29:11. This is my life verse from long ago. I claimed it for Ben. I was sure that God had a plan to heal Ben. Over many years, we wrestled with that. It was a transitioning time for me and my expectations of what God would do in Ben's life. But I needed to understand that God did have a plan for Ben's autism, for he left Ben just as he is. I'm still growing in areas of understanding. What God is doing here (at Benjamin's Hope) will help hundreds of families, and is larger than me getting what I want.”
How does one become a resident of Benjamin's Hope? Mason works closely with Community Mental Health to determine if it is the right fit for a person with a disability. They originally had over 100 applications and it was very difficult to choose the first residents. The stats show that 1 out of 88 children will be diagnosed with autism. Benjamin's Hope desires to meet the needs of as many perspective residents as possible. They finished Phase I with a $5 million campaign in 2010. They now require $3 million more to finish the work. Benjamin's Hope is a debt-free organization. They have relied on the donations of the community and beyond. God has been providing for their needs through the goodness of the community. If you would like to donate, please visit their website or contact their office at (616) 399-6293.
Benjamin's Hope is a place of joy. It is felt throughout the campus. The residents are joined with sidekicks, which are those special people who journey through the wonder of life with the residents. Sidekick means a friend, a companion, and adventure. It captures what Mason is looking for in sidekicks, which is to walk alongside their residents, help equip them with planning meals, plan for their day, school or work, and walking alongside them.
They now are looking forward to sharing with the community in the celebration of their Grand Opening scheduled for September 12. There will be a Firelight Festival, hayrides, hot dogs, visiting the animals, and a program that is really a celebration of what God is doing on this campus. It begins at 6 pm and runs until 8 pm. Everyone is invited. It will be a reflection of heaven with all the people gathering together to celebrate what God has done. Simply RSVP on their website to attend.