The recently-installed accessibility-enhancing pathway that cuts through the 12-acre Northville parcel famously owned for decades by late automotive sales giant Don Massey could serve as a symbol of possibilities for the property’s new owner: the non-profit Living & Learning Enrichment Center.
Since recently taking ownership of the high-profile estate, the LLEC has transformed the sprawling grounds into an anything-is-possible wonderland for people living with disabilities.
Visit the site near the intersection of Griswold and Eight Mile roads — and drop-in visits are more than encouraged by the staff — and you will be amazed by the presence of alpacas, chickens, a lavender farm, an arts-and-crafts studio and a four-hole miniature golf course — and that’s just scratching the surface of the land’s amenities, all added to directly or indirectly help disabled individuals reach their life’s goals.
Dream to reality
The LLEC was founded by former Farmington Hills School District special education teacher Rachelle Vartanian, whose longtime mission to help people living with disabilities reach their full potential was heightened when her own son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Instead of wasting time lamenting the diagnosis and the scarcity of affordable programs available to those living on the autism spectrum, Vartanian took action, quitting her 20-year teaching job when a buyout option became available, sold her family home, dipped into her retirement funds and downsized her life to start the LLEC, whose headquarters have moved from a single, modest-sized facility in Northville to the former Don Massey estate.
Just getting started
The LLEC currently assists over 250 disabled individuals (and that number continues to grow) each week who reside in six counties and 70 communities around southeast Michigan.
“When people see social-media posts related to the Living & Learning Enrichment Center, they’ll ask me exactly what it is,” said Jim Harb, one of the nonprofit’s marketing volunteers. “I tell them there are institutions and facilities for people on the autism spectrum and who live with developmental disabilities, but there wasn’t an entire campus like this for this sometimes-forgotten population.
“A large percentage of people who live with a developmental disability are unemployed and there really isn’t a whole lot they can do, but this place is changing that.”
Everything stationed on the LLEC campus has multiple purposes – providing much-embraced jobs for disabled individuals and helping grow the much-needed influx of funding for the organization, which with the aid of fundraisers, private and corporate donations, and Vartanian’s initial financial sacrifices, purchased the estate for $3.5 million.
For instance, the alpaca that live on the property not only provide a soothing presence for the LLEC’s visitors, but their fleece is shorn annually and sold to companies that make clothing.
And once the chickens’ eggs are gathered weekly, they are sold by developmentally disabled benefactors of the LLEC, who are paid for their work.
Among the abundance of other compelling programs flourishing at the organization is one that pairs autistic and disabled individuals with job coaches, who travel every weekday to job sites across southeast Michigan to help them attain at least some level of independence.
“Another appeal of this particular property for Rachelle was the proximity of the Park Place apartment complex, which is directly across the street,” said Jill Engel, LLEC’s director of development. “She envisioned (the Don Massey estate) as the home base and the apartments as a place where the individuals who benefit from the LLEC can live independently, within walking distance.”
The estate’s 6,200-square-foot mansion/LLEC headquarters is often buzzing with productive activity. Except for the building’s basement and third floor (which is occupied by the organization’s staff), every square foot is used as life-enhancing space by the forward-thinking staff.
Helping improve individuals’ social and emotional needs, and experience independent living top the LLEC’s list of goals. The individuals’ aspirations range from finding a job to securing life-long friends.
Ways to support
The organization’s reach extends to downtown Northville, where its Mod Market employs developmentally-disabled people and sells items made by people on the autism spectrum and who live with a variety of developmental disabilities.
Considering the organization’s ever-expanding goals and costs, it is always in need of donations and volunteers. To find out how you can help strengthen this uniquely special organization, visit the LLEC’s website.
Which will joyfully submerge you into the organization’s motto: A unique approach to enriching lives.
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