Young adults with special needs struggle to find support. One Toronto family is working to change that

 On a quiet suburban street in Toronto’s Bedford Park neighbourhood you’ll find well maintained homes with manicured lawns along tree lined streets. Standing out in this suburban-like oasis is a corner lot blocked off by large black fencing masking a large-scale construction project, one that’s been underway for the past four years. “It’s a labour of [[{“value”:”

On a quiet suburban street in Toronto’s Bedford Park neighbourhood you’ll find well maintained homes with manicured lawns along tree lined streets. Standing out in this suburban-like oasis is a corner lot blocked off by large black fencing masking a large-scale construction project, one that’s been underway for the past four years.

“It’s a labour of love,” said Joseph Geraghty, surrounded by scaffolding. He owns the property with his wife, Rhonda, and their three children — all now adults in their 20s, each with special needs. “We’re doing this for them,” Rhonda added.

The couple bought the property, which had an existing home, 16 years ago.

“We needed a larger space and at the time this worked for our family.”

Back then, their kids were young and all in school. Their eldest daughter, 29, has epilepsy and their twin boys, 26, have different degrees of autism, including Evan, who is non-verbal, battles extreme autism challenges and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) tendencies.

“It was really Evan who was the catalyst behind this huge undertaking,” Joseph said. “And it all started when he turned 21 and aged out of the school system.”

The couple says Evan, a budding artist whose work has been exhibited as part of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, really struggled after leaving school.

Our son was in distress,” Rhonda said, fighting back tears. “We had to stop working for a while to help him as there was no support, anywhere. Once you age out of the school system, there’s nothing.”

The couple says they worked with various agencies to find the right program that would cater to Evan’s special needs and foster his budding art career.

 They had no luck.

“We’re trying to bridge the gap where social programs fall short.”

We couldn’t plan for anything moving forward. There were no programs and we thought: ‘What is his future? Who’s going to support us?’ We didn’t have clinical support. We didn’t have vocational support. We had nothing and that was scary.”

So the couple needed to come up with a Plan B to secure a future for Evan and their two other special needs adult children. The answer was their one solid investment, their home.

“We decided we have to do this on our own so we began to come up with a plan as to what that would look like and that meant making massive changes to the property,” Joseph said.

They’ve kept some of the original structure of their home but are expanding it to add rental units and space for an art studio to help Evan build a career.

“We have no choice but to do this and it’s to set up our kids for success should anything happen,” Rhonda said. “They’ll have a home, so they don’t end up homeless. They’ll have income with the units we’re building downstairs should they not be able to find a job. It’s a very holistic way to secure their future.”

But such a large undertaking isn’t easy or cheap. Work is done based on the money available at the time.

“It’s a process of juggling,” Joseph said. “Paying the interest and paying the bills while trying to secure all the materials. If we get the materials, sometimes we can secure friends and families who come in to help but it’s a constant struggle just to keep it moving.”

The couple is also building a second home on the property, which when finished, they hope to sell to help fund the effort.

As long and painful as this process has been — with no immediate end in near sight — they consider themselves lucky. Both have stable careers with training in architecture and design which has helped save costs in their efforts. They say many other families, in their same situation, aren’t as fortunate.

“For all the other families, and there are many, who have children ageing out of the school system there is no support,” Rhonda said. “The programs that are available have long waitlists so they’re stuck.”

The couple hopes to serve as a model for other families facing similar challenges. They’ve also founded The Legacy Building Project created to help respond to a system the Geraghty’s say does not assist special needs families to provide a secure sustainable housing future for adult children with special needs.

“We’re trying to bridge the gap where social programs fall short.”

Their mission is to help families in similar situations by using their expertise in architecture and design, while also working to promote the need for more government programs help fund innovative housing development by and for special needs families.

“It’s to draw attention to this issue that’s very common amongst, parents of autistic, or special needs children,” Joseph said. “When they age out of the school system they end up going back into the home with no support. Parents have to quit their job to take care of them. Some of them end up remortgaging their homes until it comes to a breaking point where they lose their home. It shouldn’t come to this.”

The couple is in conversations with various lawmakers hoping to find some government funding to help families struggling, while currently there is nothing concrete, the Geraghty’s remain hopeful.

“This is a huge issue that impacts so many Ontarians.”

The Legacy Building Project is also getting more attention and support with newly signed sponsors but is still working to get more corporations, contractors and others who could donate, whether with time or money, to help families in need.

“This is a huge issue that impacts so many Ontarians. We need a means of support for families in need so that they have some type of alternative to losing their homes,” Joseph said.

We had to start with what we needed and then create our own model,” Rhonda added. “At the very least, we’re hoping that that may resonate with some other families like us.”

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