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Sweetwater Spectrum breaks ground on new building

Construction crews this month broke ground on the planned expansion of Sweetwater Spectrum, the Sonoma home for adults living with autism.

The $2 million project will include a new 3,194-square-foot duplex on what had been a “farm parcel” on the grounds at the residence-based community at 369 Fifth St. W.

“They’re doing the foundation now, mainly just digging (and laying) wires,” said Olivia Vain, Sweetwater’s executive director. She estimates the project will take about a year to complete.

The expansion is for a single-story duplex, which will house four residents; each unit will have two bedrooms, a kitchen, laundry and storage, covered patios and landscaping. It will bring Sweetwater’s residential population from 16 to 20.

The need to find independent-living facilities for families of adults with autism continues to grow, Vain said. Sweetwater already has about 50 applicants for placement in the upcoming four new housing opportunities, she said. “It’s a detailed process” to place new residents.

Sweetwater receives applications from families throughout the year and holds onto them if and when a housing opportunity opens. The nonprofit’s admissions committee reviews applicants, meets with families and potential housing candidates and tries to find the best fit for the openings, Vain said.

While Sweetwater’s current buildings are fourplexes — with four residents living together — the new building will offer a pair of duplexes, with two residents in each unit divided by a shared wall. The duplexes include kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms. Support staff is on site during the day, provided by Lifehouse, a San Rafael nonprofit serving people with developmental disabilities, which rotates about 45 support staff through Sweetwater on a weekly basis. Sweetwater itself has four full-time staff, Vain said.

The construction project launched just as Vain was still settling into her new role as executive director. Vain, who replaced the retiring Kory Stradinger in April, had been program manager at Lifehouse for several years, making the transition to Sweetwater smoother for both herself and the residents already familiar with her.

“It’s been really great to hit the ground running with the new building getting started fast in the (onboarding) process,” Vain said. The work is being done by local contracting company Landers Curry Inc.

While construction presents its inevitable disruptions on the grounds, Sweetwater staff and residents are trying to ensure life runs along as normal.

“We continue to sell microgreens at the farmers market and tend to the small farm on site,” Vain said, noting that the farm just welcomed 17 new chicks, which residents got to each pick out themselves. When the chicks first arrived they were temporarily kept in Vain’s office.

“My office was a bit of a zoo there for a while,” she laughed. In about a week she hopes they’ll be released into the main coop.

Vain described it as “exciting” to see the expansion finally begin after more than two years since its initial conception. She said they’re getting frequent calls, emails and other inquiries from parents and professionals in the field of autism “asking about what we’re doing, what has or hasn’t been working and generally taking inspiration from Sweetwater.”

She said the reality that “tens of thousands” of children with autism are going to be leaving the school system in the next decade presents a big question: What is going to happen to this population when their parents and families won’t be around to care for them?

“Being able to expand that (residential care) is a dream for us that is coming true,” said Vain. “Knowing the need is going to continue to increase, we want to be able to serve as many people as we can.”

For more information, visit sweetwaterspectrum.org.

Email Jason Walsh at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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