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Ideas, passions raised at ‘Transform SDC’ workshop

Saturday morning at Vintage House, more than 200 people gathered to share their ideas on the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center, bringing with them their thoughts, experience and passion. It marked the first stage of a year-long process to gather public input to “Transform SDC” – and determine the future of the 120-year-old state-run health-care center and its 950-acre property, dedicated to the least able in our population.

Though the size of the event seemed unwieldy, at the end of four hours surprising unanimity on several key points emerged from the four different breakout sessions. One was that compassion is a key component of any future for SDC – not the dollar value of the property, or other financial mandates of the state government’s ongoing effort to reduce and ultimately starve funding for the facility.

Another was the value of community in finding a path forward for the developmental center, what workshop facilitator Caelan McGee called “a tight-knit community with resources” for which anything should be possible. There was also the recognition that SDC is itself a community, one with deep history, immeasurable merit and emotional content, especially for those who live there.

“This is for real, this is life and death stuff,” as McGee put it. Yet acknowledging that developmental centers are closing around the country, he insisted, “We need to figure out what that change looks like – that’s the challenge.”

The idea of a wildlife corridor was also popular, preserving some degree of open-space status for the almost 700 acres of the property that are not part of the built campus. “There really is only one pathway for wildlife from Sonoma Mountain and the Mayacamas,” said Bill Keene, of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, and that’s through the corridor provided by the SDC property.

Beyond the basic premises there was diversity and invention, but surprisingly little conflict.

At the SDC Open Space and Natural Resources meeting, one of four breakout sessions the organizers arranged, some proposed expanded educational use, as a satellite campus of Santa Rosa Junior College or even an 11th campus for the University of California system.

Others pointed out that making it a campus could very well “domesticate” it, turn it into a crowded environment for youth with few lasting roots to the history or location.

Frequently mentioned was the model of the Presidio in San Francisco, a former U.S. Army base converted in the past 20 years to a mixed-use facility with open space as well as campus-like clusters. Yet even Craig Middleton, the executive director of the Presidio Trust and its first employee, noted that the analogy would only go so far.

“The people with family members at SDC really impressed me,” he said after the second session of the Built Environment workshop, which explored complementary uses of the buildings and facilities already present. “It’s much different than a military population. These people are emotionally invested in SDC, there’s more passion.”

Yet an undercurrent of frustration ran through many of the groups, and not just about budget cuts or pending change. April Hurley, an area psychiatrist, argued that dreaming of a positive future was inadequate. “Some dream, others live a nightmare,” she said, referring to the mentally ill, the homeless, the damaged members of society that do not get the care or support they most need.

Hurley was not the only one to suggest that instead of closing SDC, it should be expanded in some way – as a center for people in transition, for homeless care, for the emotionally distressed who may not be “disabled” but still suffer.

An almost revolutionary fervor erupted on occasion, too – the term “transformation” seemed too tame for some, as even putting a price tag on the services or facilities was missing the point. “It’s not about the money,” said McGee, in summarizing this viewpoint. “Everything costs money – we spend trillions on war. We should be asking what are our priorities.”

The format of the community workshop included the four distinct breakout sessions, each held twice so attendees could switch to a second topic during the latter half of the event. Plentiful bagels, coffee and fruit were available as sustenance, and the multi-room structure made the central corridor as fertile a ground for discussion as the sessions themselves.

Strategically placed throughout the Vintage Hall were a number of whiteboards with sticky-notes available for people to add their suggestions beneath to event’s theme of “Dream – Create – Transform.” Idea boards in the outdoor staging area also solicited specific suggestions on topics including Health, Fitness and Well Being; Arts, Entertainment, Food and Wine; Education and Learning; and Community and Events.

Some of these notes called for the following: Ideas: culinary school and wedding venue, community garden, dog walk park, a self-sustaining farm, a senior-run pre-school, SRJC or UC association, a museum, a film or theater festival, community pool, urgent-care facility and more. Many notes made it clear it was important to keep specialized services, or provide for wildlife. And a few had a negative approach: “No more vineyards!” Or, “Say no to development!”

One of the sessions was lucky enough to be staged outside, beneath a white shade canopy. The Historical Perspectives and Cultural Resources breakout, though the least-attended of the four, did uncover a significant fact about the Sonoma Developmental Center – that during the early 1950s, it was the location for final trials of the polio vaccine that has saved millions of lives since.

When questioned on the ethics of conducting scientific testing on a disabled and confined population, psychotherapist Jim Shere of the Glen Ellen Historical Society agreed, “There are dark places in human history.” Yet he argued that these conditions could and do generate information of great value – “Progress is built on the back of tragedy,” he said.

It was noted that the 1977 passage of the Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Act changed both attitudes and treatment for the disabled, giving them full rights as citizens under the law. That is how the residents of SDC are regarded now, as “the men and women who live there,” not as inmates, patients or even clients.

As the first of four scheduled community workshops came to a close, Kathleen Miller of the Parent Hospital Association – one of four major stakeholders in the informal SDC Coalition that supported the event – acknowledged one of the important lessons she had learned. “I realized it’s important to hear from people outside the immediate group. As parents (of SDC residents), we sometimes get so wrapped up in our concerns that we don’t see things clearly.”

McGee, the facilitator from the Center for Collaborative Policy who ably drove the complex agenda, noted the importance of the discussion. “These are high-risk patients,” he said, adding there will be “catastrophic consequences” for them, and society, if the right solutions are not found.

Three more similar community workshops are set to take place over the next nine or 10 months; if the energy and ideas that were generated in the first are any indication, they will be worth following as they very well may play a significant role in the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center.

“What I picked up on is that anything is possible in Sonoma,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin in her closing remarks at the workshop. “This is what we were hoping for, a unified vision coming forward. Without that, Sacramento will not be listening to us.”

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