Peggy Winkley: Making a House into a Home
Thirty-five years ago, Peggy Winkley and her late husband Mal had an idea. Today that idea is a thriving organization dedicated to serving adults with mental and emotional challenges, among them autism and Down syndrome.
Their organization, Brian House, now has facilities in Chester, Deep River, Haddam, East Haddam, and Lyme, but none of the homes they operate look like institutional facilities. The first house they bought for the project was a Victorian home on Middlesex Avenue in Chester. The only difference in Brian House residences, according to Peggy, is the vans parked outside. She explains that none of Brian House residents drive.
“They are nice homes, traditional homes; we are like any neighbor,” Peggy says.
Brian House had its beginnings at Becket Academy, a boarding school for young people with learning and emotional disabilities once located in East Haddam. Peggy and Mal both taught there, with Mal ultimately becoming the headmaster. He was a close friend of John Wolters, the school’s owner. John had a brother, Brian, with Down syndrome who lived at home with his parents in New Rochelle, New York. When his parents were killed in a car accident on Christmas Eve, there was no one to care for Brian.
“Brian had never lived in an institution; he had a rich social and cultural life, a family life. John didn’t have the heart to put him in an institution,” Peggy recalls.
Instead, Peggy and Mal proposed an alternative: housing Brian in an unused wing of Becket Academy.
At the same time, the national conversation about how to treat people with mental and emotional problems was changing. That population for decades had been warehoused in large government facilities, but negative reaction to both the facilities and some of treatment they provided led to the closing of many such places, among them Connecticut’s Mansfield Training School, shuttered in 1993.
To provide ongoing services, the state provided funds for qualified caregivers to set up smaller homes and treatment facilities.
Peggy and Mal took three former Mansfield residents along with Brian and created a home for them in Becket’s unused wing, and trained them for jobs working in the school’s kitchen.
“They were earning a bit of money; for the first time, they had a paycheck,” Peggy recalls,
Many deinstitutionalized residents were not so lucky.
“They were hanging around places like coffee shops, nothing to do,” she says.
Peggy and Mal had a plan.
“After a decade [at Becket], Mal was itchy and we thought we would take our program and move it off campus,” she says.
They left Becket and purchased their first house in Chester, resettling the former Becket residents there after hiring appropriate staff. And then they bought another house in Chester and then another, always renovating the homes, creating apartments and hiring staff.
Peggy did the all the interior decoration, with the goal of making each residence a warm and home-like setting.
“We wanted people to have the best life possible, a high-end life; the best food, the best décor,” she says.
Peggy and Mal and their family, four sons and a daughter, always lived very briefly in each home. Their first child, a daughter, had died at eight months of leukemia. The family stayed only one night in each renovated residence, before moving on to start work on another new dwelling. They needed to get residents into place as soon as possible to start receiving funds to pay for the construction already completed.
“We timed it that closely, because we had to start bringing in resources to pay for all the work that was done,” Peggy explains.
Since three of the early moves were in Chester, the children did not have to change schools every time the family changed houses.
In the beginning, Peggy recalls, some neighbors were a bit hesitant about having Brian House residences in their neighborhood—the NIMBY, or not-in-my-backyard syndrome. But Peggy says that feeling has long since dissipated.
“All that has changed. People know we are good neighbors,” she says
Since those early days, Brian House has grown to 16 sites, including some apartments where residents live independently with ongoing assistance from staff. At the moment, there are some 62 individuals in Brian House residence programs. The program now has a five- to seven-year waiting list for new people who want to move into homes the program sponsors.
In addition, 82 people participate in vocational programs that Brian House oversees, many of them Brian House residents but some associated with other residence programs. The participants don’t work in sheltered workshops, but are employed in regular businesses, often as kitchen staff.
Among the companies involved are Whelen Engineering in Chester, Aetna in Hartford, and Voya Financial in Windsor. A number vocational participants also work at Smith Farm in East Haddam, where Peggy herself lives.
After moving regularly in the early days of Brian House, Peggy and Mal renovated Smith Farm for their own family.
“Remember, we have five kids to help,” she says.
The farm sells the vegetables grown there through a farm share program, as well as at a roadside stand.
Peggy, a vegetarian, is one of Smith Farm’s regular consumers. She also plans meals for all Brian House residents.
Peggy says she will likely step down as executive director of the organization sometime in the next five years, but her commitment to the mission of Brian House remains unchanged.
“There are different kinds of people in the world and all are needed. We can learn from all the them,” she says. “We are working to accept and appreciate all of them.”
For more information on Brian House, visit Brianhouse.org.