Large estate offers new opportunities
Posted on 05/11/2021
Clients hold products (eggs and honey) produced on the new estate.The Living and Learning Enrichment Center (LLEC) has grown by leaps and bounds in the last five years – opening a spacious new home base, launching several micro-businesses, offering hybrid programs due to COVID-19, and forming a new partnership to provide housing for people with autism and related challenges.

On April 30, 2021, LLEC formed an alliance with Community Opportunity Center (COC), a nonprofit that provides housing and staffing support to 78 individuals in Wayne County, ages 18 to 73. The organization partners with adults with developmental disabilities and their families to help ensure that those served live active and enriched lives by providing comprehensive housing and staffing supports throughout the life cycle of the individual.

The home base is shifting from a rental house next to Mill Race Village to the former Don Massey estate, at 801 Griswold, south of 8 Mile, on the northern side of Northville in the City of Novi. In 2019, there was an all-out fundraising effort. An anonymous donor who was inspired by LLEC’s plans and vision to improve the lives of people with autism provided $500,000 of $3.5 million needed to purchase the property, and the balance was raised through generous business contributions and private donations.

The campus has 14 acres with a large main house, lush lawns and gardens, an outdoor pool, plenty of trees, and several outbuildings, which will be converted into areas for work, learning and creativity. The move is expected to be complete by July 1, 2021.

“It’s wonderful,” founder and director Rachelle Vartanian said of the property. “We got the keys in January 2020 and COVID hit in March. Things have slowed us down with COVID. We have to make it ADA compliant, which involves changing doorways and doors, and turning the laundry room into a handicap-accessible bathroom. We also had to widen the driveway.”

Employment will be expanded for teens and young adults with autism and related challenges (also known as clients) via several micro-businesses at the home base. These include raising chickens and selling fresh eggs on Fridays; growing fields of lavender to use in oils, soap, body lotion and other scented products; hiring a bee keeper and selling honey; and eventually having enough alpacas (two will arrive in June and four more are coming) to harvest the wool. Aside from the micro-business aspect, the baby alpacas, being donated from Peru, have a gentle nature that makes them an ideal animal for clients to assist with grooming, feeding and overall nurturing.

A greenhouse and vegetable garden are in progress. The Pre-engineering program at Schoolcraft College is helping the center’s staff learn how to grow micro-greens so that can become another facet of training for clients. The goal is to sell produce from the greenhouse and garden to area restaurants.

Music, performances, and other forms of creative expression will be cultivated as well. There’s a large outdoor movie screen to be used for clients and the community. A private foundation (anonymous) will build a bandshell on the property. “Clients will do the performances,” Vartanian said. “We currently have theater classes. And, we want to have bands play there too.”

The garage will be converted into an art studio for clients and the community. The center has three art therapists and a pottery wheel. Hoops that Help, a Northville-based nonprofit, will construct an outdoor basketball court on the grounds this summer based on Vartanian’s outreach efforts.

“We want our new center and property to become a destination spot. People can rent it for weddings. You can walk the grounds. It’s so beautiful, it needs to be shared by everyone.”

Vartanian, her husband, and her son, Anthony, who has autism, live in the guest house on campus. She is on call 24/7 for the property and livestock, but it comes with a great benefit: being able to walk to work. Because of the setting and scheduling – daily programs and weekend events when COVID is no longer a threat – it works best if someone lives there.

While people don’t outgrow autism, they learn to live with it as adults. Many clients who receive support services at LLEC will be able to live normal lives, get married and raise families of their own. Others will need a more supportive living structure with close-by services, and places to go without having to drive.

“The driving force through this whole journey, was ‘What’s going to happen to my son when I die?,’” Vartanian said. “I want him to be able to live by himself.” And this is also a goal for many other parents of children with autism.

Prior to COVID, the center was seeing 150 clients a week. During 2020, that number dropped by half but Vartanian expects it to rebound strongly when the pandemic ends. Forecasts are for 450 clients per week, post-COVID.

A staff of 25 provides services such as counseling and training to clients. The center accepts health insurance for clients who are 19 and younger and have a diagnosis of autism. That’s also allowed the nonprofit to grow and accept more clients.

LLEC has close ties to Northville. It’s an important part of the autistic support system with its welcoming community, walkable downtown, and access to restaurants, stores, services and green space. Mod Market is the nonprofit retail component of LLEC and operates out of the organization’s founding site at 150 Mary Alexander Court. The store, managed by Amy Bonser, provides a training ground for LLEC clients and others. Much of the art it sells is made by people with autism and other special needs. As a 501( c ) 3 organization, proceeds from retail sales are used in programs that focus on employment training.

Vartanian is a maestro at reaching out to those in the community locally and beyond to bring LLEC’s short- and long-term goals to life. The nonprofit recently received a $15,000 award from Mitch Albom’s nonprofit “Say Play Detroit,” which is opening its second IT academy in Detroit. Clients from the center will get training there.

LLEC has had a partnership with Cisco since 2019 that provides the curriculum leading to certification in cyber security. The actual training is done by The Exceptional Academy, run by David Franco. He hires the instructor, finds classroom space – initially at Madonna, then at Washtenaw County Community College – and lines up internships at Plante Moran, Coopers Standard, Comerica and other companies where LLEC clients can hone their skills while training.

“People with autism are capable of doing a lot more than people give them credit for,” Franco said.

Earning a certification in CC&A (Cisco Certified Administrator) can lead to a full-time job with a promising future. That was the case for John Ferella, in his 20s, and Nicole Taylor, in her 40s.

Ferella had been working as a janitor before being trained in IT cyber security. After having completed a successful internship, he’ll join the IT staff of Plante Moran this summer. Taylor is working at Comerica as a network engineer, after having difficulty finding a job as a disabled veteran. Neither job would have been possible without the impetus of LLEC’s training component.

Now in its second year training LLEC clients, The Exceptional Academy started with 14 students and nine successfully completed it. Twelve clients began the program the second year – during COVID-19 – and they are finishing with nine. Those are high retention rates, Franco said.

The normal route of employment for disabled people, including people with autism, is to find a disability friendly company that hires people, typically at minimum wage.

“The reason why we started this program is to get people jobs where they can get hired (and earn a living wage),” Franco said. “It’s the perfect reflection of the culture at Living and Learning: We can do better. Rachelle (and her team) do not accept the status quo.”

For more information about LLEC, please visit their website. They also welcome supporters who want to help LLEC grow and support their programs.

White-sided estate on large green lawn with driveway.

Photos provided by LLEC.