By CASSIE MCKEE, Four Points News
When Jonathan and Polly Tommey moved to River Place from the U.K. in 2012, they had one dream in mind – to build a place where adults with autism could live and thrive. Now, a generous donation of land from one local family is helping to make that dream a reality.
The Tommeys learned first-hand about autism after their son, Billy, was diagnosed with the disorder at the age of 2. In 2007, while in the U.K., Polly Tommey founded The Autism Trust, a non-profit organization with the mission of providing vocational, educational, wellness, and semi-independent residential programs for individuals with autism.
“As a parent, our biggest concern is who’s going to look after my children,” said Jonathan Tommey. “We don’t want them in these institutions that offer them no opportunities.”
After the success of The Autism Trust in the U.K., the Tommeys were awarded an exceptional visa to build the same center of excellence in the U.S. They chose Austin because of the warm community atmosphere and the many autism experts who live here.
The Tommeys came with the goal of building a state-of-the-art center where adults with autism can live a safe, healthy and purposeful life. But first, they needed some land.
A perfect meeting
In November 2012, the Tommeys were introduced to and had lunch with River Place land owners, Berta Bradley, and her daughter, Lisa Eckhart. Berta also had a son, Kent, with autism. Berta said Kent was living in an institution and she was very unhappy with his level of support and care.
“We were talking about our plans and vision,” Tommey said. “(Berta) said, ‘My husband who died always wanted his ranch to be open to adults with autism.”
Last month, the family donated 40 acres of land and the house on it to The Autism Trust. The land is located in River Place near Austin Christian Fellowship church.
“It really is a very exciting project,” Tommey said. “We’ve been blessed with this piece of land. It really is tranquil and beautiful.”
With their much-needed land, the Tommeys have now begun working to clear the property and renovate the house, which has been vacant for 14 years. Several volunteer groups have already helped out including a group of soccer players from Vandegrift High School.
“It really is quite a nice community gathering,” Tommey said.
Plans for the future
Tommey said the first phase will be to create a vocational and life skills program for adults with autism. Participants will learn skills in horticulture, animal husbandry, arts and crafts and more. He said young people with autism often have few choices once they exit the school system.
“It’s when they leave school that they have nowhere to go,” Tommey said. “Our facility will be catering to those adults as they leave education to come out and do vocational and life skill development.”
He said they hope to have phase one completed by May 1.
“We’ve had some great volunteer support and I think we’ll get there,” he said.
Once they raise enough capital, phase two will be the construction of the residential program. Tommey said there are 88,000 adults with autism living in Texas with very few services or adequate living facilities.
He said he envisions multiple single-story, one- to two-bedroom cottages, each with their own kitchenette, bathroom and living space. Depending on their level of independence, residents can enjoy semi-independent living. A live-in member of staff will be available for those who need constant care.
“This is going to be a model we hope can be replicated,” Tommey said.
He wants everything to be very natural on the property, including the food.
“We’re only going to have organic food here, there’s no chemicals going to be used on the property or on the land,” he said. “We’re going back to very much how it used to be in time before all the chemicals and processed foods. Our kids just cannot tolerate toxins of any sort. It’s part of their biochemistry. It’s important that we offer them the best health and wellness support that we possibly can.”
The project has already drawn the attention of some high-profile Austinites, including filmmaker Robert Rodriguez.
“He came up to the land with his wife and loved what we’re doing,” Tommey said.
Tommey estimates it will cost between $5-6 million to renovate the property and build the residential units. He said he and his wife will begin an aggressive fundraising campaign over the next several years.
“We’ve achieved a lot already but we’ve still got an enormous amount to achieve,” he said.
While they have several volunteer groups lined up over the next few months, Tommey said they could use help from any members of the community with contracting or construction experience. They recently discovered the house has a bad termite problem.
“Our hands are full but we’ll get there,” he said.
The couple is also coordinating an upcoming summit known as the “Give Autism a Chance Summit 2015.” It will be held Saturday, April 18, at The Westin Austin at The Domain. The all-day event will feature numerous panels and speakers on topics related to autism.
For more information on The Autism Trust, visit www.theautismtrust.org.