What happens here changes lives forever.
That’s the slogan of Happiness House, which supports children and adults — both with and without disabilities — and their families throughout the Finger Lakes region. And although the slogan has not been around as long as the organization, changing lives has been a way of life for Happiness House for the past 50 years.
“We believe that each and every person touched by Happiness House, whether they’re a child or an adult, achieves great successes through the programs and services that are offered here,” said President and CEO Mary Boatfield, explaining that the slogan was coined about 25 years ago.
Children learn to walk and talk and make friends, she said, while adults with brain injuries regain their mobility and language skills. Both, she added, make lasting, lifelong friendships with their peers and the individuals around them in their programs.
Happiness House began changing lives in 1969, when parents of children with cerebral palsy in Geneva came together and raised the necessary funds — along with the New York State Elks Club and the Geneva Woman’s Club — to provide a childcare program for their children.
Five children received services through that first early program. Today, Boatfield said, Happiness House serves more than 1,500 individuals across a spectrum — from early intervention for 2-year-olds and preschool opportunities to services for adults with traumatic brain injuries and housing programs, also for adults.
“It’s incredible progress,” Boatfield said. “I have to give credit to the board of directors, many of them long-term board members. They have been instrumental in the development of strategies leading to this great expansion of services to address unmet needs in our communities.”
Boatfield also credited the communities “who have supported us throughout the years for helping to ensure this success and ongoing expansion of our programs and services.”
“We’re just thrilled to have been a leader in our community, especially with providing early education services for children and services for adults with brain injury,” she said.
Judy Hurley’s 17-year-old daughter Erin, who has Down syndrome, is one of Happiness House’s many success stories. While Hurley, of Shortsville, is now a part-time teacher’s aide in a classroom, Erin began attending Happiness House’s early intervention program when she was 2 years old.
She attended Happiness House three days a week — learning in an integrated classroom — until she was 4 and received speech therapy, occupational and physical therapy, and special education services. She also learned sign language and communicated that way until she became verbal.
“She’s verbal now. She’s very verbal,” Hurley said. “She likes to speak to people publicly more than me. She is not afraid of public speaking.”
Erin added that physical therapy helped strengthen her balance and reflexes as a child, and in occupational therapy, she learned how to hold a pencil and use scissors.
“It was positive,” she said. “I liked it.”
Now a student at Newark Education Center through the Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES, Erin attended Happiness House’s teens and tweens program, which was part of 4H and took place once a week. There, she met friends and made crafts such as pillows and ornaments and participated in a tree decorating contest.
She also plays basketball and piano and rides horses, using skills she and her mother credit Happiness House with helping her acquire.
“Early intervention really gave her the confidence and helped her to do what she’s doing today,” Hurley said.
With that confidence, Erin has visited the Rochester Institute of Technology to give an advocacy speech and also has appeared on television a few times.
“Happiness House is very accepting of all abilities,” Erin said.
Hurley described Erin’s experience at Happiness House as “very positive,” noting the organizationagency emphasizes routine and repetition with compassion and patience.
“It was wonderful to start her at such a young age being integrated in the classroom,” Hurley said. “They taught her socialization and confidence and some independence. She was very young but as independent as she could be.”
For Happiness House, part of changing the lives of the people it serves has meant transforming attitudes about people with disabilities over the past 50 years.
“It definitely has changed,” Boatfield said. “There’s certainly quite a bit of education and awareness that has been needed.”
A hallmark of that change is the integration of most of Happiness House’s preschool classrooms, she said — which serve children both with and without disabilities. Each classroom has two teachers — a special education teacher and an elementary education teacher — who work with the class as a whole and focus on the needs and abilities of every student.
“Children from a very young age are learning about different abilities and challenges,” Boatfield said. “Before they can develop any judgments against people, they are learning in a way that sheds a very positive light on people as people and not the differing abilities that people have.”
As for the future, when Happiness House celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2069, what will the organization look like and how will it have progressed?
“Certainly, we have some ambitious fundraising goals because we have to close the gap between public-type of grants that we get and private funding, so we continue to fund raise for those programs and services,” Boatfield said.
In the next 50 years, she said, Happiness House will continue to stay true to its mission of serving individuals from a young age throughout their lifespan through educational, therapeutic and residential programs. That mission will include those with autism, as currently one in every 59 individuals is diagnosed with autism and the need for those services continues to rise.
“They (programs) may look a little different as we change things based upon funding and based upon the needs of the individuals in our community, but I still believe that the services we are currently providing will continue to be needed,” Boatfield said.