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Ledyard - Set back from the road in a wooded area of town, the gray colonial-style house looks like a typical suburban family home.
On weekday afternoons, the teenage girls who live here come in from school, hungry for snacks, and, depending on their mood, are willing or not willing to talk about their day. They retreat to their bedrooms, where they have pictures on the walls, stuffed animals on the beds and bottles and tubes of cosmetics on the dresser.
There are a few signs that this is not a traditional family home. The girls and adults have separate entrances. The snack cabinet is locked, as is a medicine cabinet whose contents are handed out by a medical professional. And the adults who ask, "How was your day?" are paid staff members.
The Gray Farm House is a group homes for teen-age girls in the care of the state Department of Children and Families. The home is operated by Noank Group Homes and Support Services, formerly known as Noank Baptist Group Homes, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a gala on Jan. 12. The nonprofit organization also operates group homes in Noank and Mystic and runs a housing assistance and support program. The agency's annual budget is $2.9 million, 97 percent of which comes from the state, according to Sandy Easton, executive director.
The residents of Gray Farm House have often been living in a more restrictive residential setting and are assigned to the group home as a step down on their way to independent living or returning to their families. Gray Farm is the home base from which they attend school and therapy. They cook together and learn life skills such as time management and budgeting money.
Kenya, 17, has been at the Gray Farm House since January. Her first impression was, "Nobody wants to be here, but the people were cool and everything. I just wanted to do what I had to do to get out of here."
She will be moving on shortly, probably to an independent living facility. She knows if she goes back to Hartford she'll go back to her old ways. She wants to finish high school, go to college and become a social worker.
Fifteen-year-old Allaya is a newer arrival. She says she is getting used to her surroundings but is having some issues in therapy.
"I gotta do what I gotta do," she says when asked if the setting is a good one for her.
The residents occasionally attend public school, but more often are enrolled in a clinical education program, such as the Joshua Center or Wheeler Clinic schools.
Jessica Cotter, the program director at Gray Farm House, said many locals are not aware of the group home and that calls to police from the house have been drastically reduced to just three in the past year. She says the staff sets the tone for the girls and that they appreciate living in "a judgment free zone."
Former Gray Farm House resident Samantha Day, now a 22-year-old artist and photographer affiliated with a New York City gallery, will be a guest speaker at the anniversary gala and has donated some of her artwork for a silent auction.
Day, who had serious anger and depression issues, said she went to Gray Farm House after living in a more restrictive setting in Lenox, Mass.
"I was despondent before I went into those places," she said. "I was volatile. I really took out my anger vicariously on everybody around me. It was an awful situation and I didn't know how to express myself."
At Gray Farm House, she said she appreciated the staff arranging for activities that suited her interests and for the opportunity to learn about life in "the real world." She said she became involved in an art program where she was able to visit museums. She got a driver's license, car and full-time job while living at Gray Farm House. She learned to use computers and got her first email address. Day said the staff was supportive.
"Even if we woke up in the middle of the night, they were always there for us," she said.
Kelley Reardon, president of the board of directors of the Noank Group Homes, said the organization strives to provide the girls with every opportunity they would have if they lived in a family setting. She said the organization receives some state money but that its fundraising efforts are critical to making ends meet.
Gary Kleeblatt, a spokesman for the state Department of Children and Families, said there are about 50 therapeutic group homes in Connecticut, each of which averages about five residents. Group homes were developed as way of placing children into more normal settings, he said.
"They live in a community and go to school in the community," he said. "The residential treatment centers tend to be more institutional."
For information on Noank Group Homes or to purchase tickets for the anniversary gala, go to noankgh.org.