Posted by: Daily Times, Written by: Kathleen E. Carey
MIDDLETOWN — Elwyn is looking to a future that would include a smaller geographical footprint while planning to engage the community to preserve open space and create meaningful development.
Charles S. McLister, president and chief executive officer, joined other Elwyn executives in attending Monday’s Middletown Township Council meeting to make the public aware of some of the changes coming to the human services organization.
Although only in the conceptual stage at this point, McLister explained that as part of charting a five-year vision for Elwyn, the organization is considering continuing to shift from its on-campus residential model to a reduced-size campus, where educational and other services would continue to be met. The move would also include selling a sizable portion of its real estate, including the former Sleighton School property.
In 1826, Sleighton was founded as the House of Refuge in Philadelphia and eventually became a farm school for girls before closing in 2001.
“It’s really been changing,” McLister explained about Elwyn’s service paradigm. “Thirty years ago or more, we had 2,000 adults or more living on our campus in Media. Now, there’s less than 200 ... This was a beautiful property that was built for a model that is 150 years old.”
McLister wanted to make Middletown officials aware of his plans.
“They welcomed it,” Middletown Township Manager Andrew Haines said of the council’s reaction to the Elwyn boss’ visit and update. “(McLister) articulated where they want to go. Elwyn’s a very established landmark in the township. What goes on is of interest.”
And, Haines explained, the Elwyn team outlined what it expects to unfold in the next few months and years.
“They talked about they are working on a vision that they’re going to have a master plan of what they want to look like,” the manager said, explaining they spoke of their history and how the prevailing mindset at that time was to isolate members of their community and not have them be visible.
Now, both Haines and McLister said, that has changed.
As part of that, Haines said Elwyn officials wants to divest the organization of lands not immediately tied to their core goals, and that includes the old Sleighton farm.
“They have no intention to do anything with those lands,” the township manager said.
“They don’t necessarily support their mission.”
The seeds of Elwyn were planted in 1849 when physician Alfred L. Elwyn attended a meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, Mass. There, he saw an experimental classroom for children with intellectual disabilities in line with the
theories of Dr. James Richards at the South Boston Institute for the Blind.
According to the organization, those with intellectual disabilities and mental illness were often outcast, jailed or sent to live on the streets at that time.
However, Elwyn believed in a better option.
In 1852, the doctor opened a school in Philadelphia and invited Richards to serve as its superintendent. Eventually, the operation was moved to Middletown, where Elwyn has been headquartered for more than 155 years.
Since that time, Elwyn has grown to become the oldest non-profit human services agency of its kind with operations in nine states and 6,000 employees - 1,400 of them in Delaware County - and serving 20,000 people.
Elwyn is also responsible for 157 adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities
who live on campus as well as another 289 who live in the community. Of these adults who live in the community, 220 are in group homes, 26 are in life sharing arrangements and 43 receive in-home supports.
Elwyn also provides children’s services on campus with 400 special needs students at The Davidson School and 180 receiving support from Elwyn Developmental Centers.
There are also behavioral health services on the Elwyn campus for 22 adults and 14 children as well as 50 individuals who live in personal care homes on-site.
Comparatively, in southeastern Pennsylvania alone, Elwyn provides non-residential day program and supported employment services for 1,000 adults.
In his remarks to Middletown Township, McLister explained the revamping of the Elwyn model.
“Our headquarters campus and its 300 acres were built for an era when persons with intellectual disabilities and autism were shunned, marginalized, persecuted and hidden from view,” he said.
“Today,” McLister continued, “a modern approach requires that on behalf of our members, we pursue maximum dignity, expanded independence and essential inclusion. By modernizing our facilities, Elwyn ... will de-institutionalize the experience of our membership.”
He explained that Elwyn will continue to support adults with intellectual and physical disabilities in living independently in the community, in homes and in apartments.
And, McLister said, another component will be revitalizing children’s services and the school, creating an aesthetic and a technological functionality more in line with contemporary needs.
In this stage of the planning, McLister said Elwyn has three priorities.
First, he explained, the organization wants to define itself – what it does and where it’s going to do it.
“We know what we’re good at and what we can support,” he said.
Secondly, he wants to design a facility that reflects what the people who go there and work there deserve while also improving the Elwyn community, preserving open space and making Elwyn unique.
“As a member of the community and a future member of the community, we believe in that,” McLister said.
Finally, he said he wants to determine how to use the property that’s not going to be occupied, both through collaborative open space and thoughtful, well-planned commercial development that works for people.
“We see down the road we can efficiently use 70 acres,” he said, explaining that there are about 500 acres they own now between the Middletown and Sleighton properties. “What is our footprint going to be? ... We don’t have shareholders that buy stock ... We don’t
have to turn that entire portfolio into equity.”
Advocates applaud Elwyn for reinforcing the model of in-community living.
Eileen MacDonald, executive director of the Delaware County Advocacy and Resource Organization, said that’s something her organization has lobbied for since the 1950s.
“”That is the direction we continue to move in – to let people with intellectual and developmental disabilities be participating in their communities,” she said. “It’s what we strive for.”
Her organization has under 400 active members but advocates on behalf of the more than 2,200 Delaware County residents identified as having intellectual or developmental disabilities.
She spoke of how societal attitudes have been shifting over the decades.
“It’s been a real positive change,” she said. “The community is becoming much more accepting to our community members.”
In the meantime, McLister and the Elwyn staff want to engage the community in creating a sustainable, meaningful model for the future by first, clarifying their footprint, identifying property they aren’t going to use and then determining what thoughtful development and collaborative preservation of open space looks like.
In envisioning the next five years, McLister shared his vision for Elwyn.
“I hope that we’re the most effective provider of human services to people in the country,” he said. “(And,) it shows up in the buildings and the communities and the
homes that we use.”