Gardening, new activities help bring purpose, joy to Hope House residents

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Hope House of Austin residents and staff enjoy a snack party on Monday afternoon. From left are Shannon Smith, Maria Gutierrez, Rodney Allen, Jared Sudekum, Clara Sequist, Sabrina Moreno and Dave Gould. (Christine Bolanos Photo)

Hope House of Austin residents and staff enjoy a snack party on Monday afternoon. From left are Shannon Smith, Maria Gutierrez, Rodney Allen, Jared Sudekum, Clara Sequist, Sabrina Moreno and Dave Gould. (Christine Bolaños Photo)

By Christine Bolaños

Helping build a garden, making a candle or soap can be therapeutic for anyone. For the residents of Hope House it is an opportunity to find purpose, joy and a sense of accomplishment in everyday life.

The nonprofit offers a permanent nurturing and understanding residence for the mentally and physically disabled. Some of the residents have spent nearly 50 years at Hope House.

“We’ve been going since about the beginning of summer,” said Jared Sudekum, director of Hope House’s day-hab program. “We’re developing activities and programs around what the participants are interested in. What the individuals like and what we know has worked.”

Sudekum has several years of experience working within the LifeSkills program at Liberty Hill High School and has incorporated those lessons into the new programs at Hope House.

“My main focus in developing this is to get them involved where they can produce things,” Sudekum explained. “Where they have the opportunity to learn skills, at whatever level they’re at, and they’ll be able to have something tangible at the end of the day.”

Many skills available to the intellectually disabled population have traditionally focused on recycling programs, shredding paper and similar tasks.

“Which are productive jobs, but not to where they’ve actually produced something that they’ve seen is tangible,” Sudekum said. “So that’s kind of been our focus.”

He hopes the activities at Hope House go beyond that.

Over the last couple of months, staff at Hope House has worked to engage the community more with the organization.

“We’ve been out in the community participating in several different activities,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of workshops. We’ve been at a class where we learned to make soap, which was wonderful and we’re incorporating it.

“And hopefully, we’ll be showing some of our own product at Liberty Hill’s Christmas fair and that will be our first effort,” Sudekum shared.

The garden at the residence is in progress. It has been built, and once the ideal weather graces the area, the residents will take part in planting seeds and other gardening activities.

“We’ve subdivided it into two areas,” Sudekum said, pointing to the garden. “Our main garden is going to be 19 four-foot by four-foot garden beds, which will have a rotation of crops and different things we grow.”

Sudekum had the opportunity to go through the Williamson County Master Gardeners program and is using those skills to teach residents the gardening process. He’s had past success with growing peppers, tomatoes, grains and onions.

“And I’ve taught gardening for several years for Sustainable Food Center out of Austin so this is kind of my hobby,” he shared. “We’re going to put in the garden beds and they’ll be raised beds because here we don’t have a whole lot of good soil.”

The other side of the garden will house chickens.

“It’s very therapeutic,” Sudekum stated. “We’ve had chickens historically with the participants in the high school programs and they’ve been really good. Plus, the whole life cycle and process. And, eggs, that’s a nice side effect of having them.”

Due to inconsistent weather in central Texas the staff at Hope House wanted to ensure its residents had several options.

“So we started the candle making and soap making,” Sudekum said. “We’re at the very beginning of these things.”

He said the staff wants to try several herbs for the soap making and maybe even the candles.

“We’ve got to learn more about all of that,” Sudekum explained. “We really want to do the fragrant herbs and the culinary herbs. Ultimately, it’d be nice to be able to share or sell some of those at a market.”

Though the initiatives are in early stages, the residents have contributed every step of the way so far.

LHHS National Honor Society members helped set up the garden.

“That’ll be set up and done within the week and then it’s a matter of funding and donations,” Sudekum said.

He said Hope House is signed up at seedmoney.org, a crowd-source fundraising site.

“If you pull up Outside the Fence Farm you can see our project and have the opportunity to donate to help build what we want to grow in here,” Sudekum stated. “With the 19 beds that’s a lot of lumber, there’s a lot of soil involved, and obviously plants and infrastructure.

“We need to bring the hoses out and do things like that,” he added.

The beautiful thing about gardening, he said, is that “endless” activities are involved.

“At level for any individual,” Sudekum explained. “Some may only be able to hold a hose to water. Some have done so much as to transplant plants. Everybody at some level gets to participate in harvesting because everybody likes to eat anyway.

“So even if you’re not out there picking it you’re going to participate,” he added. “There are so many levels — turning the soil. We have a composting project we just started so we’re actually creating soil so it’s a whole plant cycle.”

Residents with more profound challenges can help turn the dirt and prepare the soil and activities go up to individuals who can plant the seeds.

“It gives us multiple levels of activity,” Sudekum stated. “We could have a group working inside on candle making and a different group out here working on gardening.”

He hopes the garden will become a model for similar organizations to adopt or build. Beyond that he hopes the garden will offer the community a chance to get involved with Hope House.

“So that this can be replicated in other residential facilities,” Sudekum said. “It can be senior centers. It can be anywhere.”

The natural soap making initiative began with a trip to Austin.

Hope House took a group of students and staff onsite and participated in a training session at Soapmaking Feto Soap.

“It was a very simple process,” Sudekum shared. “And it was kind of beautiful and kind of exciting. And so we thought we would take that home and incorporate it.

“We’ve done a few runs of soap,” he added. “Some were beautiful. Some we’re still on a learning curve with it. But it’s safe and they get to participate in pouring it. We mix colors, we mix fragrances, all things that they’re able to do.”

The finished products are wrapped up for sale. The process to make 24 small bars of soap takes about half a day. The soap making and candle making processes are similar, which is why the organization decided to start doing both activities.

“We’re working on figuring out how to market it and everything else,” he said. “It’s a whole learning experience for us.”

It comes down to offering residents new and various activities they can participate in and learn from.

Hope House has about 35 residents on the main campus and one home. The organization is in the process of building another duplex.

“We’re looking at how do we provide them a very solid selection of services and move out into the community,” said Hope House Executive Director David Gould. “That’s what we’re doing in this duplex as well as the new duplex we’re building right now.

“Is to move them in to where they’ve got their own bedrooms,” he added. “Where they’re able to participate more in community events and really be a part of the community.”

There is a process Hope House participants go through to get them to where they are productive.

“The first thing is to teach them the daily living skills that they need to know to participate in the community with less restrictions,” Gould explained. “That basically comes down to learn how to go to the bathroom, learn how to feed yourself, learn how to shower and clean yourself up and learn how to get dressed.”

Once those basic skills are mastered, the individual’s choices open up exponentially.

“Most of our children that come in to us aren’t able to do any of those four things,” Gould shared. “They’re non-verbal. They need full assistance.

“Once we get them able to take on some or all of those tasks on their own, then being involved in community events becomes much easier for them,” he said.

A participant who can partake in making candles, soap or Special Olympics bowling team has overcome challenges to accomplish that feat.

“Really we’re looking at what level can we fill out their dance card as much as possible,” Gould explained. “Gardening is beautiful for them. They love to be outside. Everyone is able to help in some kind of way.”

Echoing Sudekum’s comments, Gould said everyone gets to contribute.

“There’s so many layers of tasks (involved with making soap or candles),” Gould added. “We’ve got some that can participate in a very small part of it. We’ve got some that can take it from step one and finish it. And some can help us sell them at the Christmas fair.”

When residents contribute they realize their lives have impact, he said.

“These are God’s children,” Gould stated. “Their bodies have continued to grow, but developmentally they stay between 8 months and 18 months old where our children still have that direct connection to God.

“Our guys get to keep that their entire life,” he continued. “I think they’re an incredible resource for our community of getting to come out and bask in the glow of that. One of my main secondary missions is to bring the youth groups out and see what these folks have to offer.

“They really are already contributing,” Gould said. “I think the soaps, the candles and the community gardens is a way to get them out into the community so that they can have a greater effect of what they’re already doing.”

For businesses looking to sponsor Hope House’s C meal or for individuals looking to donate toddler toys, arts and crafts supplies, money or to volunteer, contact Gould at (512) 515-6889, at dgould@hopehouseaustin.org or reach the staff via www.hopehouseaustin.org.

The organization’s holiday Open House is scheduled from 2-4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 13, at the main campus located at 1705 CR 285 in Liberty Hill.

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