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Close to Home: A last hike to Fern Lake

As my son, a client of 12 years at the Sonoma Development Center, and I walk through the soon-to-close campus, I keep thinking of the fervent mothers who - 128 years ago - secured this land and intended it to be there in perpetuity for those with special needs.

A van drives by slowly. The driver waves to my son, and says, β€œHello there, Carsten. How are you?” My son beams. We pass by the swimming pool, now closed. We cross over Arnold Drive toward the hill. We meander by what still is or used to be the store, the upholstery shop, the laundry, the bakery, the paint place, the coffee shop, the shoemaking workshop, the tailoring place, the adaptations shop, the framing workshop, the nursery, the school, the gymnasium, the auditorium, the sensory therapy/activity place, the on-site hospital and many other buildings. This used to be a village that provided both services and work opportunities, including farm and dairy, for its villagers.

I keep thinking of Julia Judah and Frances Bentley who fought for this place so it could be there in perpetuity for those who needed it.

A fire engine returns to the station. The firemen greet Carsten. He waves back enthusiastically. He understands the tremendous and courageous effort they put forth to save the Sonoma Developmental Center from the October fires.

Shaded by magnificent magnolias and oak trees, we make our way up the hill toward Fern Lake. It is deliciously quiet and peaceful; the only sounds we hear are birdsong and a light breeze. We encounter just one other person on the path, who also knows my son by name. Soon we pass by the campground where clients used to enjoy camping experiences. At Fern Lake we pause, we picnic, and we savor the view.

I keep thinking of these two mothers who made it their lives' work to secure the 1,500- acre-property so it could be there in perpetuity for those who needed it.

Has my son's Sonoma Developmental Center experience been perfect? No. Many things could have been improved. The creation of the crisis house Northern Star was an excellent example of how the aging buildings could have been converted into smaller homes - moving from an institutional paradigm to a village paradigm.

Parents who can afford to privately create a model place for their children with special needs often choose to include a farming opportunity. Sweetwater Spectrum in Sonoma and Camphill Communities around the world are examples of such models. Vine Village in Napa also includes a farm experience. The Sonoma Developmental Center's land could be re-envisioned to provide this opportunity in a contemporary fashion.

There is hardly a staff or family member who doesn't grieve over this lost haven. Many of us have spoken at forums and hearings initiated by the state Department of Developmental Services. We were encouraged to share our experiences and views, but we were hardly listened to. I wonder what Julia and Frances would have done to save this land. I wonder if I could have spoken out even more loudly or found other ways to be heard. It is too late now, I guess, and I watch sadly as this stunningly beautiful, spacious and sacred land is being pulled away from my son and all of his peers.

Soon, my son will move. His new home is in a neighborhood of elegant, expensive houses. I hope that when we walk around the block his neighbors will step out of their villas, smile, wave and greet him by name.

Thank you, Sonoma Developmental Center staff and firefighters, for your love and dedicated support.

We will miss our hike to Fern Lake.

Ana Mettler is the mother of a Sonoma Developmental Center resident. She lives in Lakewood, Colorado.

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