In The Sound of Music there’s a line Maria Von Trapp shares with the Reverend Mother before leaving the abbey that resonates with me every time: “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.” Recently meeting Raphael Village Executive Director Jackie Case, I was reminded of Maria’s words and how if we choose to search, obstacles can often become opportunities.
An architect, Jackie and her family returned to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina with the same priorities shared by many. And for those of us with children, finding the “new normal” focused on helping our children settle back into the school day routine. However, Jackie’s quest was infinitely more challenging because, like one in every 68 children, Jacqueline’s son has autism. But instead of succumbing to the harsh realization the post-Katrina Orleans Parish public school system would be challenged to include quality programming for special needs students, she decided to develop an alternative. Integrated into the Irish Channel, Raphael Academy, The Guild at Raphael Village and The Hearth – housed within the Raphael Village community – are the outcomes of her vision. Each component of Raphael Village offers age specific learning, skills and a near future life-sharing community for differently-abled individuals in a caring, supportive environment.
Following exhaustive research based on the internationally renowned Camphill model, The Raphael Academy was first to open its doors in 2012 as a sixth through 12th grade school for students with autism, Downs syndrome and other intellectual disabilities. Bright, colorful classrooms offer a sensory rich, experiential learning environment conducive to allowing creativity in the arts and traditional academic subjects as well as providing a safe space for work on relationship building and social interaction skills. Now serving grades five through 12, Raphael Academy continues to focus on educating the body, mind and spirit of special needs children so that they may become active participants in life and their communities.
The Guild at Raphael Village, for participants 18 years old or older, builds upon the pedagogy of the academy, but emphasizes the continued life skills each individual needs for greater independence at home and in the community, vocational skills training and vocational work sites in addition to cooking, baking, handwork and gardening. Through their job exploration program, Guild members gain real world experience volunteering at local partners such as Whole Foods, LASPCA and Tchoup Industries. The Guild Member-operated Celestial Cafe coffee shop is also providing valuable business and social interactions. “A challenge for a special needs child is finding acceptance of who they are and recognition of their potential. The staff at Raphael Guild embraces acceptance and sees potential in spades,” shares Elaine Haney. “Our son Jason has found a welcoming place where he can make friends, learn new skills, and be who he truly is. This is a special gift to me as a parent.”
In addition to their current $2 million capital campaign to build the Raphael Village town center, community members and parents have begun acquiring properties in the surrounding neighborhood to secure the future of The Hearth, a new model for residential care in the Southeast. Homes in The Hearth will provide residents greater independence and support without isolation, as has historically been the norm. The town center of the Raphael Village master plan is the epicenter of this unique community comprised of a community cafe, vocational training classrooms, art guild studios and administrative offices.
Through acceptance, structure and encouragement, Raphael Village’s mission to “support differently-abled people in becoming fully engaged in life and community” is providing unconventional opportunities to special needs children, adults and their families in New Orleans.
A little more …
For more information visit RaphaelVillage.org or support the third annual “Tennis Fun-Raiser” September 23, 2017, or the “Soraparu Soiree” March 24, 2018.