Benjamin's Hope Attorney aims to help children with developmental disabilities

by Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Attorney Dave Mason and his wife Krista have a dream - to create a farm-style community on 40 acres in Ottawa County where people with autism and other developmental disabilities, children like their 14-year-old son Benjamin, can enjoy a simple, self-sustaining lifestyle.

Although several regions have developed similar communities, the nonprofit "Benjamin's Hope" would be a first in Michigan, addressing the needs of individuals and families affected by developmental differences.

"Benjamin's Hope will support local families by providing access to a compassionate Christ-centered community and needed resources," Dave Mason says.

Growing crops like blueberries, raising animals and enjoying the outdoors will go hand in hand with clinical support through assessment, treatment and life-planning services, prioritizing Christian values, holistic approaches, family involvement, and community participation.

The organization will pursue collaborations with Grand Valley State University, Hope College, Calvin College, Community Mental Health, local schools, churches, community organizations, and others, according to Mason.

"Benjamin's Hope," has an option to buy land offered by Scott Spoelhof, managing director of Bayside Capital in Holland. The acreage would include a large multi-purpose "barn" for community recreation, leisure and social activity, bakery café, information and resources for families and community members, and employment opportunities; a developmental treatment center; therapeutic animal center; small scale animal barn; indoor pool; gardens and greenhouses; and more than miles of plentiful walking trails. In addition, the plan includes cottage style condos which will be home for approximately 20 adults with developmental disabilities.

It was Benjamin's enjoyment of animals and the nature that gave birth to the idea of a working farm, his father says.

"Benjamin's Hope" has already raised more than $250,000 in donations, including $20,000 from Art Van Furniture; the goal is $5 million. Initially, most of the operational costs of the farm will come from federal and state programs, clinical revenue and business income from the farm. The Masons are encouraged by the positive response from Park Township officials as they work through plan development.

Mason, an attorney with the Allegan-based generic pharmaceutical firm Perrigo Co., says the daily challenges faced by parents of children with developmental differences can be overwhelming.

"Communities across the country," says Mason, "are challenged by the epidemic increase of autism and families need access to resources to help navigate the question, 'What do we do now?'"

Millions of children, adults and families are affected by developmental differences such as autism, traumatic brain injury, Down syndrome, and other forms of intellectual impairment. In the Great Lakes State alone, 1.5 million people live with a disability. The Ottawa Area Intermediate School District has seen an autism increase of 200 percent in the last decade, and more than 6,500 students in Ottawa County currently receive special education services

The epidemic increase in the rate of autism is of particular concern. The U.S. Department of Education cites autism as the fastest growing developmental disability in the country - more common than multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis or childhood cancer, and affecting 1 in every 150 children in America, according to the Centers for Disease Prevention & Control.

People with developmental differences are at a far greater risk for mental health and behavior problems that often go unrecognized and untreated, resulting in high levels of stress, pain and suffering, failure at school and work, isolation, and unnecessary separation from family, according to psychologist Dr. Dave Laman, clinic director of Benjamin's Hope.

"Excessive use of medication and psychiatric hospitalization are aimed at controlling dangerous behavior and mitigating crisis, rather than proactively promoting wellness," says Dr. Laman.

About 85 percent of families impacted by disabilities don't worship on a regular basis, according to officials. Benjamin's Hope will collaborate with local churches to help these families who are often invisible, misunderstood, and marginalized.

Many couples find the stress of coping with a child with disabilities push them to the brink - burnout, isolation, anxiety, depression, financial problems, spiritual despair, and divorce, according to Mason.

People with autism need a caring community, where they can develop new skills, enjoy a fulfilling and productive life, and live, relax, worship and work; and their families need access to clinical support offering expertise in addressing behavioral challenges, language and communication difficulties, and optimizing development.

"By providing needed resources within Christ-centered community, Benjamin's Hope will walk alongside families, to give hope in the midst of uncertainty," Mason says. "For the person with developmental difference, Benjamin's Hope will be a place to find belonging, meaningful work, skill development, and purpose."

For more information about Benjamin's Hope, visit www.benjaminshope.net. Tax-deductible contributions can be made to: Benjamin's Hope, c/o Bank of Holland, 150 Central Ave., Holland, MI 49423.

Published: Wed, Dec 23, 2009