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Innisfree: Lifesharing with Adults with Mental Disabilities

Knowledgebase > Innisfree: Lifesharing with Adults with Mental Disabilities

Marianne Roberts describes how her community provides a unique home for people with mental disabilities. She examines both what this can mean for residents with disabilities, and for the members attracted to the community to engage in this work.

Imagine a place where there is no discrimination and where everyone is treated with respect and has an opportunity to contribute. Innisfree is trying to create this kind of place in a village next to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

We are a community with adults with mental retardation and mental illness. Formed in 1971 by families who were concerned about the lack of quality care for their loved ones with disabilities, Innisfree offers a productive, progressive alternative to insti tutional or home-bound care for our coworkers (residents with disabilities). We are a secular community and welcome all people, regardless of race, ethnic origin, religion, sex, or age.

About 60 people — 37 coworkers and 25 volunteer staff members — live here in our village on 550 acres of farmland next to the mountains of Shenandoah National Park. Our village consists of 11 residential houses, a large community center, a weavery/woods hop/bakery complex, a greenhouse, an office, a retreat cabin, outdoor recreational facilities, several farm buildings, and breathtaking scenery. We also maintain two group homes in the nearby town of Charlottesville.

Weekdays are spent in our houses and work stations. Four days a week, we work together in the woodshop, weavery, bakery, and garden. One day a week, we clean our houses and run errands. Evenings we spend in our houses or in our community center, socializi ng and relaxing. Two days each week, we take off.

Innisfree has been on the cutting edge of care for people with disabilities since it was founded; the village has become a model for similar communities around the country and abroad.


Volunteer Staff

Except for a few core positions, our staff are technically all volunteer, receiving a small monthly stipend plus room, board, medical coverage, vacation pay, and a parting allowance.

We attract dedicated, hardworking idealists who believe strongly in voluntarism, in giving of themselves for the advancement of society, and in extending dignity and respect to all people. Volunteers have come from more than 30 states to live and work in this village nestled against the mountains. Others have come from all over the world. At last count, Innisfree volunteers had come from 21 other countries.

We come to Innisfree as volunteers to take time out to assess career goals or life direction, or because of the appeal of living in an intentional community in a beautiful rural setting, or to experience the satisfaction of helping people with disabilitie s. You see, just as Innisfree is an alternative for our coworkers, it is an alternative for the volunteers, too, allowing us to integrate the values of our personal lives with the ideals of our working lives.

Some volunteers have no experience working with people having disabilities. Others are mental health professionals looking to broaden their experience. We have teachers, ministers, lawyers, MBAs, doctors-in-training, and nurses, and some volunteers straig ht out of college. Some have majored in English, religion, business administration, sociology, art, psychology, or horticulture, and some have simply majored in life. Some are in their early twenties, and some are in their mid-sixties. Some stay for a sho rt time, and some stay for years. Many bring special interests, talents, or hobbies to add to the mosaic of community life, enriching all our lives. We’ve had jewelry and paper makers, musicians, and people who work for social change.

What do we take with us when we leave? Precious memories — of hugs, smiles, tears, even of tantrums. And we remember having penetrated beyond the labels of disabilities to the unique personhood of the coworkers we come to know and cherish.

We also remember the experience of living in a community — the endless meetings, the demands on our time, the fact that everything we do and everywhere we go becomes common knowledge. Of course, the flip side is knowing what interdependence means; experi encing the synergy of individuals working together; and finding support when all the chips are down.

We ask at least a one-year commitment from volunteers. Beyond that, our primary requirements are that volunteers (1) work patiently and nonjudgmentally with people who experience life in different ways than the norm, (2) have stamina to live in an extende d family “fishbowl,” and (3) have energy and a sense of humor.


Homelike Atmosphere

Innisfree has a “life-sharing” environment rather than the traditional shift system that creates a distance between staff and clients. We live in small homes like families because we want to foster a sense of community and stability. We spend our days wor king alongside each other at home — where we cook, clean, and socialize — or at work — where we produce goods for ourselves and for the greater Charlottesville, Virginia, community.

In this close-knit environment where both the caring and the conflicts are magnified, we share the responsibilities, frustration, and joys of everyday living. And we try to learn and grow with each other, knowing that the inclusivity and diversity we enco urage give us and our community strength and depth. By spending frugally and engaging volunteer staff, we operate at considerably less than the cost of state institutional care and have never needed government funding. Our costs are met entirely through p rivate sources. In fact, we pride ourselves on using creative, nongovernment solutions to operate our community, and we strive to be a model for public institutions through prudent use of these private resources. A noted commentator in The Washington Post observed, “Government money can purchase professional competence, and can increase society’s supply of such competence. But the mysterious dedication that makes Innisfree a community is, like all love, mysterious.”


Two-to-One Ratio

A two-to-one ratio of coworkers to volunteers is maintained, which melds well with our philosophy of community and family. Small-group interaction and individualized relationships foster learning and growth for both coworkers and volunteers. Personalized attention helps us to continually be aware of the unfolding needs of coworkers, who, in a sense, become guides and show what the village focus should be. Our close relationships help us maintain a sense of community with coworkers, not for them. This is i mportant to us because we do not come to Innisfree to care for persons with disabilities; rather we join a community that includes people with disabilities.


Stories of Community Life

People at Innisfree enjoy sharing stories about favorite community experiences. Stories about the sweat and toil of haying during the summer are especially plentiful; something very special happens when the sound of the baler echoes in our hollow. The who le experience of community living seems to crystallize out there in the hay fields. When farm manager Joe Coleman starts up the baler, work station and house schedules are rearranged, clothes are changed, and people gather at the barn to jump on the hay wagon and take to the fields. Almost everyone helps; even people with allergies or ba d backs can help by bringing water to the thirsty crew or driving the tractor. Gloves are a necessity as, solo and in pairs, we hoist the hay bales onto the wagon. It’s hot, sticky, manual labor, and the teamwork grows as muscles begin to tire. The hay is carefully stacked on the wagon, yet even the best packing job can topple in the rutted fields or when climbing onto the roadway. Back at the barn, each wagon full is unloaded onto a conveyor and stacked in the hayloft for the winter season ahead.

Why do we recall haying with such fondness? Maybe because most of us are new to farm life. Maybe because the typical routine is broken, and we can sweat and laugh in the fields. Maybe because of the conversation that follows exhaustion. And just maybe it’ s the true equalizer…a time when all from Innisfree can join together and concretely see the work of community. It’s when we learn again that together we can make it!


The Innisfree Drama Group

The Wizard of Oz was the last play produced by the Innisfree drama group. The group also performed the love story Miss Lonely Hearts on Valentine’s Day, and the comedy Off Guard on April Fool’s Day.

“Judith” starred as Dorothy in Oz. When asked about acting, Judith said, “I love it. I like rehearsals. They’re not hard for me.” Acting in the play even inspired her to visit Dorothy’s homeland of Kansas.

The volunteer who founded the group brought drama to Innisfree for therapeutic reasons. “It’s one of the things that gets people together to learn as a group,” he said. “Whether it’s drama or anything else, with people working in a group, they fall out wi th each other, and make up. It’s about learning and growing. And it’s fun.” It’s also hard work. Most of the plays take about a month’s preparation.


“Louise” played Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. “I really enjoyed being in The Wizard of Oz,” she said. “Nobody recognized me with my makeup on.”

“Jane,” the Wicked Witch of the West, echoed Louise’s sentiments. “I enjoyed it very much,” she said. “Everyone really pitched in, and we all did a good job….”


Remembering a Good Friend

One perfect day, we planted 12 trees around our community center. The holes had been dug earlier in preparation for the planting; on the appointed day, the sun was shining on the garden crew as the soil was prepared for the trees. Everyone worked together to move mounds of soil and mix it with compost. By lunchtime, a lot of sweat was flowing.

After lunch, everyone joined to move the trees to their planting positions. What a great feeling it was to create a sanctuary for the trees as well as a memorial to our friend “Susie,” a coworker who died in 1987. What community spirit we felt as the suga r maples and the willow oaks went into the ground. And what a symbol of the ebb and flow of life at Innisfree.

As coworkers and volunteers we try to make this corner of the world a more gentle place. With advance notice, we welcome and enjoy visitors. Come and experience for yourself what life is like here at Innisfree Village.

About the Author

Marianne Roberts first came to Innisfree Village in 1986 as a full-time volunteer house parent. Her move to Innisfree was intended to be a hiatus for her investment banking career on Wall Street, but eight years later she still prefers the simple life. Marianne uses her banking experience and MBA training from Harvard in overseeing Innisfree fundraising efforts. As a vegan and animal rights activist, she supports a reverence-for-all-life philosophy that encompasses all the earth’s creatures.

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