Parents create community for grown children with special needs

by Judy Stringer

As the parent of an adult with special needs, Patty Gurreri knows all too well the nagging concern about what will happen to her child when she and her husband, Chris, are gone. The Gurreris are fortunate, Patty said, in that their three other grown children are able and willing to take in 24-year-old David should the need arise.

“But not everyone has that luxury,” she added, “and it’s not necessarily best for David, shifting him from one place to another. He has friends and a job and a community.”

What’s in their “hearts,” Chris and Patty said, is to see David stay in Hudson and do so as independently as possible.

That also happens to be in the hearts of many other area families who have adult children with intellectual or developmental disabilities and who have joined the Gurreris in creating a community designed around their unique needs.

In December, the Hudson Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve the site plan – with a few conditions – for Hudson Community Living, a 4-acre, 16-unit residential development designed to provide what Chris calls “a supportive environment” for 32 special needs adults. The development, to be located on South Oviatt Street across from the police station, will include seven cottage-style multi-unit residences and a clubhouse, along with other community features like a courtyard gazebo, raised garden beds and paved walkways.

“And a fire pit, because all kids need s’mores, right?” Patty said with a grin.

The path to this point, however, has not been all smiles. The Gurreris began gathering like-minded parents to discuss plans for such a community in 2020. Chris said as many as 60 people came to planning events at their home and most took on roles in 10 separate committees tasked with evaluating and providing insight on topics ranging from zoning regulations and community rules to intake and socializing.

When the group – a nonprofit formally named Hudson Community Living Company – finally sought the planning commission’s conditional use approval in September of last year, it was met with some pushback.

According to Chris, the main concern from the commissioners and city staff related to the density of the original proposal, particularly in the northeast sector closest to homes on both East Streetsboro Road and Fox Trace Lane.

“They basically said this is a transition area between municipality buildings and residential buildings and we feel the best way to make that work is to go to 16 units versus 19,” he said, “and so we did that.”

Fellow Hudsonites expressed additional concerns, including stormwater management and flooding, traffic, fair housing regulations, onsite security measures and safety for both neighbors and those living in the community, just to name a few.

“It seemed that the neighbors closest to where we planned to build were very supportive, even excited,” said Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh, a resident and HCLC board member. “Other individuals – sometimes several streets away – were raising these issues. Quite frankly, some were saying ‘We love this concept, just not right there or not in our community.’ For me, as a parent of an autistic child, that was really devastating to hear.”

Still, a contingent of supporters came forward. According to the planning commission’s minutes from Dec. 12 – when the site plan ultimately passed – commissioners had received more than 1,400 written correspondences favoring the development and 79 against it.

Natural progression

The Gurreris have a pretty holistic view when they talk about the need for Hudson Community Living. The city, Chris explained, became a regional pioneer of inclusive educational practices roughly 30 years ago when a group of parents successfully petitioned to have their special needs students integrated into Hudson schools rather than bused to the county developmental disability board’s former Weaver School in Tallmadge.

Today, Patty continued, Hudson has evolved to include an “amazing” network of teachers, coaches and community volunteers that help these students thrive individually and, more often than not, participate in educational and extracurricular activities alongside their typical peers. The Gurreris themselves moved to Hudson before David’s Fragile X syndrome diagnosis, yet the city’s reputation for exceptional special needs services has made it a sought-after destination for other families.

“So now we’ve got a slew of young adults with disabilities, and they’ve been part of the fabric of Hudson for sometimes 20 to 25, up to 30 or 35 years, and they are all trying to figure out ‘What do we do now?’” Chris said.

“I also feel like we owe it to the incredible teachers and coaches and parents that we have here to let this group continue to age and grow here in Hudson,” he added.

Hudson Community Living is designed to support that continued growth, the Gurreris said. Part of the onboarding process will be teaching the young adults how to live independently to the extent of their abilities, with lessons in activities like cooking and laundry. A community clubhouse – with dining services, sports courts and entertainment and gaming areas – will sit at the front of the property and offer social and exercise programs with an onsite activities director.

A handful of Kent State University students also will be onsite as residential assistants, interacting with residents and conducting daily check-ins. The proximity to downtown is also key, Patty said, enabling residents – many of whom don’t drive – to walk to central Hudson destinations to work or hang out with friends.

Chris said the next step for HCLC is to get the county’s blessing. He hopes the clubhouse and the first two units will be built by the end of the year.

“Then every quarter, we’d be able to add the additional buildings and gradually fill up the community over a 12-month period,” he said.

Bevan Walsh believes the development is yet another way for Hudson to be a welcoming community to all and stay at the inclusivity forefront. Her son Matthew is finishing a non-credit program at Ohio State University and with that first taste of independence, is eager to live on his own after graduation this spring.

“It’s a hard decision to make, but I tell other parents they will be amazed at how much their children can do for themselves once they live apart from us,” she said. “Matthew has come so far in just over four years. … We don’t do this for ourselves. We do it for them. .” ∞

Patty and Chris Gurreri, pictured with
son David, lead a group of local parents
building independent living residences for
their adult children with developmental
disadvantages. Photo submitted.
The 16-unit Hudson Community Living
development is to be located across from
the Hudson Police Station. Photo by J.