N.S. mother's dream of building a community for son with autism becomes a reality

·5 min read
A sign at the site of the Ryan's Park development shows the plan for townhouses surrounding a shared courtyard.  (Brian MacKay/CBC - image credit)
A sign at the site of the Ryan's Park development shows the plan for townhouses surrounding a shared courtyard. (Brian MacKay/CBC - image credit)

A Nova Scotia mother whose son has autism is taking his living situation into her own hands by spearheading a new inclusive and accessible housing development.

After Susan Harvie of Kentville watched her adult son's physical and mental health deteriorate while living in a rehabilitation facility, she came up with the idea for Ryan's Park, a "pocket community" named after her son that's designed to fit the needs of people with disabilities.

Ryan has spent the last 27 years living in different institutions. He moved into his first group home at 13 after Harvie, a single mother, struggled to find the support she needed to care for Ryan and meet his specific needs.

Submitted by Susan Harvie
Submitted by Susan Harvie

Harvie said the COVID-19 pandemic took a heavy toll on her son, who was most recently living in an institution in Kings County.

"I was terrified that he was at risk and he wouldn't survive it," she said. "At that time, his health was very poor. He had lost a tremendous amount of weight."

Harvie brought Ryan home and said his health and disposition improved almost instantly. But the change came with many challenges.

Harvie had to implement safety measures throughout the house, like removing all glass cups, putting child locks on cupboard doors and the fridge, and installing padding on the upstairs walls.

Ryan rarely sleeps and moves around all night. He also gets stressed if things aren't in their proper place, and he becomes upset if Harvie leaves the kitchen.

Robert Guertin/CBC
Robert Guertin/CBC

There are few options for someone with Ryan's needs to live at home. Even with support workers on hand to help keep him safe and comfortable, Harvie knew the environment wasn't right for her son.

"When we're not a success in the world, it's because our environment is not built for us," she said.

So Harvie decided to create an environment tailored to Ryan.

She developed a plan for a small neighborhood community for Ryan and other people with disabilities to live among non-disabled people in Kentville.

Harvie said Ryan is observant and playful, and loves to have fun and explore outside. She wants this to be a space where he and everyone else can be themselves.

Private developer involved

Harvie convinced Halifax-area developer John Ghosn of Enqore Developments to help bring her dream to fruition.

Ghosn said Harvie's passion made him want to be involved, despite his initial hesitation to take on the massive project.

"If someone pleads a great story to you and you can help them, then you should," Ghosn said.

The project is being privately funded through Enqore Developments, which broke ground in June of last year on the site of the old King's County Academy. The cost of the project has not been released.

"It's probably one of my most fulfilling projects I've ever done," Ghosn said.

Brian MacKay/CBC
Brian MacKay/CBC

Phase 1 of Ryan's Park will have 22 townhouses circling a courtyard. Some homes will be barrier-free, and Ryan's home is specially created for his needs, with extra stairs and a separate kitchen to help his anxiety.

The design for the accessible units was created in consultation with Harvie and architects who specialize in building accessible environments.

"This house I've helped design for Ryan is going to make him a success," Harvie said. "It's just built ideally for him."

The aim is for the project to be finished and have its first residents move in by next summer. Some of the units are already spoken for, but anyone who wants to live in the pocket community is eligible to apply.

Ghosn said the rents will be market price, but the provincial government is not involved, so rent may be a barrier for some.

"We have no government support," he said. "They talk about wanting to dismantle institutions and provide appropriate housing for people with special needs, but there's very little of it going on."

Ghosn and Harvie want to see government support in the future to help families with a disabled member live at Ryan's Park. Harvie said Ryan will have a housemate to reduce costs.

In an emailed statement, the province's Department of Community Services did not say whether it would be open to funding projects like Ryan's Park. It pointed to its Disability Support Program, which offers funding to support people with disabilities who want to live and work in their communities.

"Persons with disabilities should be able to exercise choice in where they live," the department said.

Municipality on board

This project is the first of its kind in the province, and the goal is to set the ball rolling for similar developments in the future.

Kentville Mayor Sandra Snow said municipalities can have a large impact in facilitating accessible developments of this kind.

Brian MacKay/CBC
Brian MacKay/CBC

To allow for Ryan's Park, the town sold the land to Enqore Developments, issued a development agreement, changed land-use bylaws and created a town accessibility plan.

"It's just unbelievable what is going to be created up there from an inclusive perspective," she said.

Snow said she hopes this will make other municipalities realize they can do more.

"I think this is going to put a whole new way of thinking of housing out there for people to consider," Snow said.

"It doesn't matter how much we talk about it, it doesn't change. I think what people need to see is the actual implementation of these changes."

The hope is for the neighborhood to become a family, with Ryan — and his new home — at the heart of it.

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