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Nat Vilfort, of Danville, right, and Roddy Houghton, of Livermore, who are both developmentally challenged, both count sunflower seeds in Livermore, Calif., before packaging them to be sold to raise money for Sunflower Hill a new nonprofit on Saturday, April 19, 2014. Sunflower Hill is trying to raise money to build an independent-living community for adults with autism and the developmentally challenged. As part of a micro-business project, packaged sunflower seeds and potted sunflower plants will be sold at local farmer's markets. The nonprofit also sells greeting cards printed with drawings or paintings made by special needs members. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

LIVERMORE -- Robby Houghton recently turned 22, and like many young adults he loves dancing, playing sports, listening to music and drawing.

Robby is also autistic, and stuck in a kind of limbo. His $800 monthly Social Security check isn't nearly enough to afford an apartment of his own, but he's aging out of the public school system. Currently living at home, he'd like to be more independent. He's learning to cook and shop for himself, and has his own bank account.

"Every phase of my son's life, I've looked for ways to maximize his world," said his mother, Susan Houghton. "As much as I love my son, he can't live with me the rest of his life."

Potted sunflower plants that were put together by individuals with Autism or other developmental disabilities is photographed in Livermore, Calif., on
Potted sunflower plants that were put together by individuals with Autism or other developmental disabilities is photographed in Livermore, Calif., on Saturday, April 19, 2014. The plants and packaged sunflower seeds are part of the fundraiser for the new nonprofit Sunflower Hill whose emphasis is to help those with Autism and other developmental disabilities. The nonprofit is trying to raise money to build an independent-living community for adults with autism and the developmentally challenged. As part of a micro-business project, packaged sunflower seeds and potted sunflower plants will be sold at local farmer's markets. The nonprofit also sells greeting cards printed with drawings or paintings made by special needs members. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

Discouraged by the lack of options available for Robby after his graduation from Dublin High, Houghton decided to take matters into her own hands. The former Lawrence Livermore Lab spokeswoman, along with 11 families with special needs children, embarked on a mission to provide a long-term sustainable home for adults with autism and other developmental delays.

In January 2013, Sunflower Hill was officially born with a vision of a 50-member community -- similar to senior living -- where adults with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other developmental challenges could live, work, play and socialize for life.

"People just resonated with the idea," Houghton said. "We think this is a much more affordable model for families who want an option other than a group home."


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Named for the sunflower's symbols of warmth, nourishment and vibrancy, the nonprofit has more than 200 families on its mailing list. The concept isn't unique -- there are about 80 similar communities across the country and a dozen in California, including the Friends of Children of Special Needs community in Fremont, Vine Village in Napa and Sweetwater Spectrum in Sonoma.

For Houghton, the statistics speak to a greater need. The Regional Center of the East Bay estimates about 17,500 people in Alameda County and 11,500 in Contra Costa County have some form of developmental disability. About half are under age 22. The housing need for the combined counties' special needs population is estimated at nearly 10,000 units by 2023.

Lafayette resident Rosemary Kirbach, a Sunflower Hill board member whose 17-year-old son Patrick is autistic, went from saving for college to preparing to pay for a lifetime of care.

"The money is certainly an issue, but more importantly, what happens when we're not there?" Kirbach said. "Every parent with a special-needs child thinks about that."

Patrick, she said, enjoys riding horses, swimming, riding his bike and skiing. Unfortunately, his day programs end when he turns 18, creating a social void.

For young people like her son, who desires living on his own but needs a little extra support, the options are few and far between.

"I think the need is absolutely overwhelming," Kirbach said. "There are huge wait lists at group homes, there are very few of these (integrated living) types of communities, and the numbers are skyrocketing. The odds just aren't in anybody's favor."

Janeen Rubino Brumm's son Andrew is 17, a student at Foothill High in Pleasanton who likes to play video games, work out and play basketball. At the higher end of the autism spectrum, Andrew has the ability to take care of himself with some supervision.

Searching for the next step, Janeen joined Sunflower Hill's board, hopeful the project will allow her son to stay close to home but still enjoy social and recreational opportunities.

"It would enable him to live independently, which is something he would want, but also to be part of a community," Brumm said. "In the real world, he's different all the time. This is a place where he could thrive."

Sunflower Hill is looking at donated land in Pleasanton, Dublin and Livermore and is raising funds by creating greeting cards, and selling sunflowers and seeds members package at Tri-Valley farmers' markets.

The Rotary Club of the Livermore Valley funded the sunflower seed project with a $500 grant.

"We're seeing so much of these needs surface," said incoming Rotary Club President Charles Crohare. "Having organizations like Sunflower Hill trying to assist so many of these special needs young adults to take care of themselves is a great thing."

Houghton envisions a business venture, such as a restaurant, to provide financial support for the community and activities like dances, field trips and athletics. She hopes Pleasanton incorporates Sunflower Hill into its housing element and planning, an idea that will be discussed by the city council later this year.

"It would be a source of pride," Houghton said. "The idea is certainly duplicative. If you've got free land, we'll come."

Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.

A FLOWERING VISION
For more on the Sunflower Hill community for adults with special needs, or to donate, visit www.sunflowerhill.org or www.facebook.com/sunflowerhillorg. Follow the organization on Twitter at @SFHorg.