A neurodiverse neighborhood in Park City is coming
When Liza Howell moved to Park City from her native North Carolina, she’d anticipated a short one-year sabbatical to capture time with family. 12 years later, some things have kept her in Utah, among them the stunning landscapes and outdoor recreation. However, the major draw was the resources available to her son Andy, who has autism.
After homeschooling Andy for five years, she took a chance on enrolling him in the Park City School District (PCSD) and found a welcoming environment with effective methods for assisting children with special needs. “I was blown away by the inclusiveness of the school district, and just the fact that the teachers were specialists,” says Howell.
Howell then became involved with the National Ability Center (NAC) and other citizens who shared her desire to provide life skills and resources to neurodivergent (ND) individuals, and individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (also known as IDD). Together, these concerned adults formed the Park City Housing and Transition Task Force which then became Bridge21, a 501(3)(c) nonprofit.
Howell, along with co-founders Stephanie Polukoff and Wes Stout, set their sights on a formidable goal: inclusive and affordable co-housing for ND individuals in a safe, active, community-integrated environment.
Housing and advocacy
This goal is not one without challenges. Covid, securing funding, and Park City’s desirable location and competitive real estate market all presented themselves as obstacles in the early stages of building Bridge21. However, after entering a partnership with Mountainlands Community Trust Foundation, Bridge21 has embarked on the affordable housing aspect of the venture.
Wes Stout, an urban planner and Bridge21’s president, is familiar with the struggle. “One of the biggest things has been the cost of land is not cheap, and that’s a huge hurdle, and we’ve had to really dig deep to find partners in [securing land and developing].”
Since Bridge21’s partnership with Mountainlands, its goals have become more clear-cut. They were able to secure a townhouse-style complex in Park City in a walkable area near Main Street and a bus route. Following a phase-by-phase rollout that doesn’t displace current occupants, Stout hopes to see housing come to fruition within the next five years.
Stout notes that although Park City is a small community, it’s the perfect location for neurodivergent-friendly housing, the first of its kind in the town. He also notes that since there are already local resources like the National Ability Center and the Park City Learning Center, Bridge21 would be a great way to build upon those and provide families with the housing piece of the puzzle. “Let’s provide equal access to somewhere [with] recreation, jobs, and a community that’s big and surrounds people but not big in the sense that you get lost in it. That’s part of the appeal, is that there are services already that are perfect for our population. It’s just that our population doesn’t have a home base to live out of.”
Stout also notes the importance of advocacy as it intersects with housing: “They’re not a population that can speak for themselves quite frankly…this is the only group out there that can really truly not speak for themselves and needs someone advocating for them. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish, so they can have access to all of the great things that Park City has…public transportation, great access to resources, outdoor activities, and jobs in the service industry that need year-round residents are already here. We just need housing.”
The importance of independent housing
Over 75 percent of ND/IDD adults live at home with family, a large fraction of them with aging caregivers. Once they graduate from the PCSD and lose their benefits at age 21, they often withdraw from the community or are forced to move to an area with more resources. Bridge21 treasurer Stephanie Polukoff has seen this firsthand. As an occupational therapist for PCSD, she feels a sense of duty to help graduates transition into independence and flourish.
“I have worked with kids [as an occupational therapist] from 3 – 22 for 31 years…some years ago I was wondering: ‘Am I doing the right thing? Are my kids learning something? Are they going out there and being as independent as they can be?’…I didn’t really feel like that was happening.” Many autistic adults face an isolation crisis once they’ve graduated and often lack the proper scaffolding necessary to help them thrive.
“They usually go home and live at their parents’ homes, and I think that that is what we want to avoid unless they want or need to stay at home,” says Polukoff. “In the majority of cases, they want to have some independence and do some things that they see other people do. Living independently, going home to your own apartment is a goal for everyone…it shouldn’t be that different for them.”
Employment, lifestyle, and other resources
Bridge21’s goals don’t just stop at creating the necessary independent living for ND/IDD individuals. Along with the campus-style complex they’re set to build, Bridge21 is looking to provide the proper scaffolding that comes with it. “Community, connection, meaningful employment, and housing are the pillars that support a full life for an individual, and we think our community deserves that too,” says Howell.
Stout plans to provide opportunities for ND individuals to thrive and build full, well-rounded lives, “Whether it’s through fitness classes, ability to provide education and training on jobs and life skills. We want them to have the same ability to thrive in adult life as everyone else in Park City.”
In the coming years, Stout aims to partner with local businesses big and small to offer employment opportunities to the individuals in the housing complex. “Our local community is really great about hiring people with disabilities…we have several companies small and large that employ people with disabilities…even if it’s for an hour or two a day, everybody needs something to do,” says Polukoff.
Bridge21 is also setting its sights on fundraising efforts and drumming up support from local philanthropists. Their next fundraiser—a dinner in the community garden that many ND individuals associated with Bridge21 help cultivate, is set for this fall.
Fundraising and awareness are key factors in accomplishing their goals. And although there is no one-size-fits-all solution, Bridge21’s board knows that having options in their small community is the best place to start. After that, they can partner with other advocacy groups and focus their efforts outward.
“Every town needs some sort of task force so people can live where they want to live, and kids who grew up in a town can keep calling it home,” says Howell. “We’d like to come away with something replicable. It would be nice if you’re in Austin, Texas, to be able to look to Park City and say ‘Look how that town did it.’”