Riverbrook Residence carves rare space for women with disabilities to flourish

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STOCKBRIDGE — Esther Greenspan leads a tour of the Riverbrook Residence for women with mental or physical disabilities making sure to point out the most important details.

She points out a framed picture of her boyfriend on a shelf with a line of pop CDs in her pink-walled room. Next stop is the residence gym, Greenspan's basketball trophies and a gift from her boyfriend — a pillow that says "I love you to the moon and back."

This does not look like the kind of group home depicted in movies and television. This is pretty nice.

"I do two music classes and voice lessons and I get to do a solo performance in May — it'll be my first one," said Greenspan, 32, originally from Jamaica Plain in Boston. "I love it here; it's excellent."

Established in 1957, Riverbrook Residence is one of the few women-only group homes in the nation, said Executive Director Rebecca Amuso Wendell. On Friday, the residence has organized a fundraiser/raffle to collect money for an elevator and raise awareness about Riverbrook in the community. Situated in a renovated mansion on a posh street off Route 7, many residents don't know about Riverbrook.

"We've been here for 62 years quietly doing this work and people should know about it," Amuso Wendell said.

The home isn't completely invisible, though. Residents often work or volunteer outside the home at local businesses doing things like writing braille, gardening and farming. Amuso Wendell said having the women participate in activities that give them a sense of purpose and get them socializing is key to their health.

"There's no secret there's an epidemic of isolation and loneliness for people in these situations," she said. "We make sure that doesn't happen here and everyone can be successful and celebrated. This is their home."

Riverbrook is better known in the care community than in Stockbridge, said Chris McCarthy, who recently relocated to town so the family could be close to her daughter, Kaylin, while she's living at Riverbrook.

"We were thinking, she's turning 30, we need to do something for her future," McCarthy said. "We were living in Lunenburg and we wanted a good place for her."

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The decision to move her family from Worcester County to Stockbridge was an easy one due to how much her daughter enjoyed the home. Kaylin McCarthy is in the midst of switching from being part of Riverbrook's day program to living at the home full-time.

Kaylin got accepted to Riverbrook in May 2017, and the family sold their home in June. They bought a home in Stockbridge in August. McCarthy's husband works in Leicester and commutes an hour and a half to his job. The couple is hopeful that the Department of Social Services will pay for their daughter's full-time living program just as they did for her day program. That approval process could take months, though, McCarthy said.

"I just felt like we couldn't pass this up. We wanted her in a place surrounded by caring women," McCarthy said, noting Riverbrook has a wait list.

"On the first time up here we met the staff and saw the house and I said I think I'm in love," she continued. "We picked up after 37 years and came here in the fall of 2017."

Riverbrook has 21 residents and a little under 50 staff members. Women at the home are between ages 20 and 75. The residence cares for women with a range of disabilities including autism, blindness, scoliosis, depression and Down syndrome.

Mornings at Riverbrook begin with chores and breakfast, after which the women go off to work, do laundry, play music and hang out. Activities in the community are regularly scheduled for the women and there are daily household gatherings to do tai chi, go shopping, explore spirituality, play bingo or dance.

Care is offered to residents 24/7 and day classes include development of financial, personal care, creative expression and health skills.

Esther Greenspan's life outside the residence includes singing at a Stockbridge senior living center on Wednesdays. She goes through 30 to 40 songs each performance, she said.

"I'm usually exhausted by the end of it," Greenspan said of her weekly shows. "This is what I like to do and I'm glad I can do it."

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com, @kristinpalpini, 413-629-4621.


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