The Haven can be found barely a mile from University Parkway, but it feels like a different world. With no heavy traffic, a 32-acre campus with live-in dorms, a high school, bakery, thrift shop and soon a career training center, this tiny society occupies a surprisingly large tract of land. Despite operating from this DeSoto Road campus since the 1960s, many living and shopping nearby don’t realize the way lives change for the better here. More than 700 clients, all afflicted by once-ostracizing developmental disabilities, enjoy the educational and occupational empowerment created at The Haven. For some, it provides a chance at a real life unavailable anywhere else on the Gulf Coast. “All my friends are here,” says Jennifer Ely, a 29-year-old bound to a wheelchair by a debilitating palsy. Ely lives with family in Sarasota but comes here for school. “I don’t have friends where I live, but here, we all go on nature walks,” she says.

For the clients living, working and learning on the property, this is the center of a bright world that might otherwise be utterly unattainable. “We are all a family here,” says Brad Jones, newly promoted CEO for The Haven. “That is what separates us from anything else available in the state. All of us work together here.” Jones rides around campus in a golf cart, clients flagging him down every few minutes, all calling him by his first name. Matthew Priest, a 26-year-old selling cookies, wants to talk about baseball practice with the Miracle League. Mallory Schmidt, a 27-year-old wheelchair-bound woman taking a break from bagging parts for Uflex USA, asks when the next Employee of the Month ceremony will be held. In the kitchen, Barry Graders and Becky Jordan update visitors on food being prepped. Jones wants to provide a place for all of these individuals to live a normal life—one where they can walk unafraid of danger, work unafraid of stigma, learn unhindered by a mainstream curriculum. And he looks to make it even better.

Employing Strategies

While The Haven enjoyed a decades-long run of unfailing, but also unchanging, success, there has been a drought of state funding for social services and a constant increase in the size of the population in need of care. Jones comes into his leadership position with a 10-year master plan imagining more group homes, therapy centers and, most immediately, a dedicated vocational training center. Ground broke for the Frank Stern Employment Center in August, and once the 7,500-square-foot facility begins operations, the campus can move all jobs training into the new building and expand high school operations in the venue that currently also houses trade skills training. Officials note that while 20 percent of Florida’s population is made up of people afflicted with some disability, the unemployment rate among those people averages around 60 percent. That’s not the case here.

Nadine Dambra, a 50-year-old client of The Haven, proudly boasts of her place in the workforce. Despite her own physical and mental impairments, Dambra previously helped maintain airport scanners in the Northeast before moving here with her sister two years ago. When she started coming to The Haven, she again found work, and she now organizes and bags parts for Uflex USA.

Elsewhere in the Haven Industries jobs program, you can find Patricia Clarke, a Sarasota woman who has come to The Haven for 32 years. She sits by a loom weaving blankets. In another room, you can find packages from IRISS, a Manatee County tech firm that hires The Haven clients to assemble boxes for its infrared products. The company gave all the contracted workers new mobile tablets this year as a Christmas bonus. “Our own staff got jealous,” notes Jones.

Incomes are low, in part because state aid will be cut for clients getting disability funding if they end up with too high an income, but the greatest benefit from work here isn’t in financial reward but rather through a boost in self-worth. Modern medicine helps ensure patients with conditions like Down syndrome or cerebral palsy now survive and even thrive as adults, something that simply didn’t occur with such frequency several decades ago. But job opportunities remain limited for the mentally and physically challenged, so it means something to know refrigerator hinges installed on appliances around the world were assembled at The Haven. Opening the vocational center will also give more room for grade school education. Countless school-aged children with disabilities progress better in the Montessori-style environment provided at The Haven’s on-site school than they would statistically be expected to do in mainstream public schools.

Feels Like Home

For 40 clients, The Haven is also home. Co-ed dorms—the type that would be the envy of any New College student—mark the north side of campus. The first, Friendship House, was born in the early ‘80s and built for roughly $200,000. The most recent group home, Marlene House, was funded by an executive from John Deere Tractors and cost about $800,000. Jones wants to grow the campus enough that he can house 90 people, but that will take a serious fundraising campaign.

Marlene House is quite the living space; individual dorms—female rooms on the south side, male rooms on the north—give everyone a comfortable, personally decorated living space (one client turned a walk-in closet into sleeping quarters and his bedroom into a “man cave” with gaming space and a computer desk). The common area feels like an expansive community hall complete with a luxury entertainment center.

Staff for The Haven worked hard over the past year to make it known that this is a campus that serves clients from infancy into adulthood. You can see this concept imagined in a new logo unveiled this fall, notes Development Director Kristina Kelly. When the organization dropped the decades-old brand of Community Haven, Kelly says it also employed a new graphic brand that shows off a continuous wave with growing dots, one where closer examination reveals a representation of an infant, child and adult. “We’re going through a realization of a new vision,” she says. “We look beyond disabilities and see abilities and possibilities. We want to discover and find the power of potential.”