After graduating from college in the mid-80s, I worked at the Association for Retarded Citizens in North Florida. The primary day program at the facility, an adult workshop, consisted of people filling boxes with plastic spoons, knives and forks to fulfill a contract with a local company. Hour after hour, day after day, they filled up those boxes. Repetitious, undemanding tasks kept participants busy, but woefully uninspired.
Marin nonprofit marks 100 years of fostering independence
When I heard Cedars of Marin, a nonprofit agency serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, I wanted to learn more. Are their adult clients filling up boxes with plastic utensils?
I arranged to tour Cedars and was surprised to learn my first stop would be at a 22-acre ranch in San Rafael, owned and operated by the agency since the 1950s. When I arrived, their annual holiday sale was underway. On display were a bounty of vegetables and fruits, beautiful hand-made baby blankets, art, jars of almond butter and more. The freshly harvested honey and homemade fig jam had already sold out, but I managed to snag some perfect persimmons. Everything was grown or crafted by Cedars’ participants.
I was impressed. Executive Director Chuck Greene explained that for the last 100 years, they’ve continued to break new ground working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“Cedars is a place where people feel safe and are able to thrive,” Greene said. “They are actively engaged in our community—from one resident who eats dinner with our local firemen every evening, to another who sings in a local choir. We want to show the world that our participants are an enriching and valuable part of the community as neighbors, artists, volunteers and more.”
A Century of Cedars
Founded in 1919 by Cora Myers and Gabrielle Renshaw, two enlightened teachers who believed we should educate “retarded children” rather than commit them to institutions, Cedars started out as a private residential school in Ross, the first of its kind in the western United States.
The 165 current staff members follow in the footsteps of Myers and Renshaw. Though many of them must work second jobs to make ends meet, they stay at Cedars because of their dedication to the mission: fostering independence, defending dignity and realizing each person’s full potential.
“The staff commitment is way above what you would expect,” Greene said. “It’s not about compensation.”
The organization provides modern residences and award-winning day programs for 200 adults. Some are recent high school graduates just entering Cedars, and some have been there most of their lives. The oldest resident, Tom, 88, came to Cedars in 1935, when he was three years old.
Cedars manages a beautifully remodeled residential campus for 48 clients on the original Ross property, where most enjoy a private, personalized room. Ten group homes are integrated in various neighborhoods in Novato and San Rafael.
There are also three day programs: Cedars Textile Arts Collaborative, the Fine Arts Studio and Cedars Community Connections. Clients choose to participate in the disciplines that interest them most.
The largest of the day programs, Cedars Textile Arts Collaborative, is located at the ranch. Approximately 100 adults showcase their talents in textile arts, animal care, gardening, vegetarian cooking, beekeeping, art and running business cooperatives. There’s also music, dance and a senior program for retired people. The place buzzes with activity.
Some clients are master weavers, producing custom blankets, tablecloths and other textiles on table looms and complex floor looms. They sell their wares at their own store, Artist Within: A Cedars Gallery, located in downtown San Anselmo. The gallery, named the 2018 Business of the Year by the San Anselmo Chamber of Commerce, shares half of the proceeds from every sale with the artist who made the piece.
Other clients care for alpacas, goats, sheep and rabbits living on the property, most of which were rescued or donated. They use the animals’ hair and fur to make felt that is subsequently dyed with indigo grown in their garden. When Marin schools visit the ranch, the clients teach schoolchildren how clothes are made (something most of us take for granted).
Hands and Earth Co-op is a client-run gardening business. Gardeners tend to a two-acre plot on the ranch, growing a variety of vegetables, fruits and flowers that are sold at the San Anselmo Organic Farm Stand from May through September. They also provide gardening services for private homeowners. Proceeds go back into the co-op.
Client chefs create healthy vegetarian fare from the fresh food grown in the garden. They call their kitchen “magic,” because it’s tiny, yet the chefs somehow manage to cook delicious meals for 100 people five days a week.
Beekeepers maintain local hives and sell honey at their annual holiday sale and the San Anselmo Organic Farm Stand. Although bees do the heavy lifting to produce the honey, beekeepers perform crucial duties to keep the insects alive and multiplying, including feeding the bees nectar and pollen in the late fall and splitting frames of larvae to encourage the bees to reproduce a queen. By springtime, they will have approximately 60,000 bees from five hives. Their work is vital to the environment, because the honeybees’ habitats are disappearing.
Several miles from the ranch, a rented space at the former seminary in San Anselmo houses the second Cedars day program, the Fine Arts Studio. Professional artists mentor participants in fine art, expressive art, crafting jewelry and bookmaking. In time, some clients also become professional artists, selling their work at their San Anselmo gallery and the monthly 2nd Friday Art Walk in downtown San Rafael. The day I visited, they were celebrating the sale of a painting and a unique piece of jewelry purchased by a woman to go with her designer outfit.
The third day program is Cedars Community Connections. Participants volunteer their time at other nonprofits, including the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Marin General in Greenbrae and St. Vincent de Paul Society in San Rafael.
“Their volunteer work flips the paradigm about who is serving who,” said Director of Development Jeanne Lipson. “People tell us our volunteers are dependable and happy to do the work.”
The relationship between the community and Cedars is important. Greene said they still have challenges and they’re still trying to destigmatize. The more the participants are out in public and the more contact they have with people, the more stigmas dissipate.
Cedars has shaped a world for their clients vastly different than the one I experienced in the ’80s. Treated with respect and dignity as individuals, they’re flourishing.
“Our folks are living creative, joyous lives,” Greene said. “I wish everyone I knew was that happy in life. In some ways, that’s our ultimate goal—happiness doesn’t come from power, money or who you were born to; it comes from being around people who love you and support you. We know that at Cedars and it’s why we’re so successful.”