Inspired by her family’s struggle with autism, Jennyrae Brongo conceives a farming-based residential community for people with special needs.
The idea struck when her dad died.
As Jennyrae Brongo, the 24-year-old owner of an eponymous contracting and supply company in Gates, said goodbye to her father, she realized she had the knowledge and resolve to give her family a normal life. And help dozens of other families in the process.
Brongo, whose younger brother, Chucky, has autism with severe self-injurious behaviors, is founder of Homesteads for Hope, a nonprofit organization that aims to build a sustainable, agriculture-style residential community for adults with special needs. Once developed on her uncle’s 55-acre farm, which overlooks the Erie Canal in Spencerport, the campus would include apartments and single-family homes, respite homes, services, day and work programs, and a holistic medical center.
Brongo hopes to break ground in 2015.
“I believe that Chucky is my brother for a reason, that my father passed away for a reason, and that I was given a mission,” she says. “I just want to be remembered for making a difference.”
Chucky was diagnosed at 2, and began hurting himself when he hit puberty at 16. When wrapped in protective gear to keep himself safe, he began hurting others. Eventually, when family members couldn’t procure the care they say he needed in New York, he was sent to a residential facility in New Hampshire, where he lived from age 16 to 19. Brongo and her parents visited every holiday. Now 23, Chucky is mostly nonverbal but can get his point across, sometimes with short words and phrases such as “yes,” “car ride,” and “McDonald’s.”
Brongo says her mother, Luann Brown, spends her days trying to get satisfactory services and support for her son, who injures himself about once a month. When Brongo’s dad died in 2011, neither of them were able to find a caregiver to stay with Chucky for three hours so they could attend the funeral; they had to hire an uncle to do the job.
Brongo, who lives at home, does what she can to help outside work hours. She says a broken health care system can’t give her brother and many others the meaningful life they deserve.
“He’s not a candidate for home services right now,” she explains. “He goes to a five- hour day program, but we’re dealing with negligence. I think all agencies have too much on their plates and not enough money to provide the care that’s needed. The state is not taking care of our most vulnerable people.”
Brongo has joined a national movement to change that. Homesteads for Hope would do what others have managed to accomplish elsewhere, which is combine residential, vocational and recreational options in a community that promotes independent living for adults with disabilities. According to the regional group Family Advocates United, more than 1,000 people with developmental disabilities are on a critical waiting list for a place to live in Western New York alone.
Blending her passions for autism, philanthropy, and construction (she has a degree in construction management engineering from Alfred State), Brongo is laboring tirelessly on her plan to provide immediate services, support, and a forever home on a working farm, with her uncle’s blessing, to “people who are waiting not just for services, but for a life,” she says. “My brother loves it in the fields, picking a basket of tomatoes, a basket of peppers, then bringing them to my uncle at his small market on the farm. It’s so peaceful and beautiful there.”
Homesteads for Hope, which would give a voice to parents who know their children best, would work with existing agencies to develop an out-of-the-box model for care, partner with other nonprofit organizations, offer employment and training opportunities for young professionals in the special-education field and veterans, and provide fair wages, benefits and incentives for direct-care staff.
So far, Brongo has created a board of directors and collected $6,500 at her first fundraiser in October. Next spring, she’ll travel along the East Coast to visit farm and ranch communities for individuals with special needs, as well as attend the two-day FRED Conference in Los Angeles, sponsored by a national coalition of special-needs professionals and families.
There’s a lot to do before and after those trips, however. To secure $2.5 million in start- up funds to make her dream a reality, Brongo made a list of next steps in her business plan: purchase the farm, 4,000-square-foot estate house, two barns and greenhouse; remodel and update buildings to code; hire qualified staff and a grant writer; and begin the architectural and engineering design for the subdivision.
“People have told me this would be a 10- year project,” she says, “but I believe we have some wonderful people in Rochester who can make this happen sooner. This is slightly being done all over the country, but Homesteads for Hope is absolutely one of a kind.”