Monday, July 10, 2017

A Beautiful Mansion is Home to a Very Special Group of Women

This article appeared first in the July issue of Berkshire HomeStyle magazine.

The elegant white house, overlooking the great wetland at 4 Ice Glen Road in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, has a rich history. But it has an even more compelling story to tell today.

Originally known as Konkaput Brook, for the stream that edges the property, the house is one of dozens of enormous Berkshire “cottages” erected during the Gilded Age, when industry, banking and businesses of all kinds were booming.  The newly-minted millionaires took their money on vacation, creating swank resorts in Newport, Bar Harbor, Saratoga – and Stockbridge and Lenox.  Dozens of opulent homes were constructed in Berkshire County as getaways for wealthy city dwellers who travelled to Stockbridge by train.

Constructed in 1912 on a 1903 design by architect George De Gersdoff, Konkaput was built for Frederic Crowninshield, a gifted painter and teacher and a designer of magnificent murals and stained glass windows. 

His murals and windows appear in numerous churches and public buildings in New York, New England and the Midwest. Some of his stunning stained glass windows appear in Emmanuel Episcopal Church and in First Church, both in Boston, as well as in buildings on Harvard University’s campus.

One room in the Stockbridge house was designated as a workroom; over the door in that room appeared the words: “Italia – Patria – Secunda,” translated as “Italy, my second home.”

Frederic’s son Frank Crowninshield was himself quite a character. Witty and charismatic, he landed himself a job as the first editor of Vanity Fair magazine, and was instrumental in creating the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

Fast forward to 1957 – 60 years ago -- when Konkaput was purchased by social worker Annette McKenna, who operated a program in Stockbridge that served  women with disabilities. That program, Riverbrook, was, and continues to be, one of the oldest facilities of its kind in the U.S. 

In 1976, social worker Joan Burkhard – who had been Director of Special Education for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District –- joined with her husband, Dan, and two other couples to buy Riverbrook, which at the time was a private, for-profit operation. The Burkhards, who emptied their pockets to make the purchase, had a dream of what could happen at Riverbrook, and they were willing to put everything on the line to try to make a go of it.

The going was rough, especially in the beginning.  At one point, the septic system in the old house failed. After four attempts to fix it, Burkhard says she “went on bended knee” to the town of Stockbridge, begging them to hook Riverbrook into the newly created town sewage system.

She laughs when she recalls the desperate campaign she launched to pay for the sewage hookup. She takes from a scrapbook a rather unique post card that Riverbrook mailed out as part of fund-raising efforts.

“One of our client’s fathers was a plumber,” she recalls, laughing. “So we had his daughter sit on the closed toilet, fully clothed, and we put a plunger in each of her hands.” The card read, “Houston – we’ve got a problem! 

When the state’s Department of Developmental Disabilities saw the card, “they were furious with me,” she recalls. But the unorthodox campaign went on to raise a much-needed $125,000 and resolved the plumbing issue.

After running Riverbrook for 20 years as a private organization, the Burkhards in 1996 converted the operation to a not-for-profit, and formed a Board of Directors.

Today it is one of the most successful shared residential facilities in the U.S., serving 21 women with developmental disabilities.

One thing that makes Riverbrook so unique and exciting  the opportunities offered to the women. The women select from a variety of activities – among them dance, drumming, swimming, horseback riding, acting, yoga, painting, sports, handcrafts, music and writing  -- offered in the community.

Moreover, Riverbrook women also work in paid or volunteer positions serving more than 20 local businesses and not-for-profit organizations. These include the Red Lion Inn, the Lee and Stockbridge Libraries, Kripalu, Elder Services, Meals on Wheels, the Muddybrook Elementary School, Miss Hall’s and Kimball Farms. Staff at Riverbrook work closely with each of the women to match them with positions for which they are enthused and well suited.

“The community has been so receptive to the women, and to their participation in the work of the community,” says Burkhard. “The work the women do is absolutely amazing and it keeps getting better and better.”

The relationship between Riverbrook and the Stockbridge community is a very positive one, Burkhard says. “It’s happened organically. We’ve been a presence in the community for a long time, and we are always respectful of everyone. The relationship grew by exposure over many many positive experiences. Over time, people in the community have embraced the pleasures and benefits of knowing the women they employ.”

Walk into Riverbrook and the overwhelming feeling is love. I first visited one summer day when I gave a ride home to a woman with Down’s Syndrome with my daughter’s small dog in tow. I walked this young woman to the door where a staff member asked me if I wanted a tour.

Something magical happened as we walked through the elegant two-story building. Women were smiling everywhere I turned. One woman hugged me. Others begged to pet or hold the dog. All the while I felt how homey Riverbrook was, each bedroom painted in beautiful colors, with handsome furniture and lovely views out of each window.

At the end of the tour, when the staff member asked if I wanted to volunteer, I said “sure” without hesitation.

That was July of 2013 and I have enjoyed every moment I’ve spent at Riverbrook!

It’s a family. It’s a place for growth and development and discovery. It is a place where love abounds. It’s a place where exceptional women live and thrive, now and in the future. 

It’s home.

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