When Kathy Greene began working more than two decades ago with children with disabilities, it was really all about location. The Little White Schoolhouse was five minutes from her Mystic home and she was friendly with the school's director.
"I never worked with anyone with disabilities or knew anyone with a disability," she recalls. "I had no idea what I was doing, but I agreed to do it."
What began as an "experimental" extended day program requested by a handful of parents turned into a five-year program that offered structured afterschool activities for special education students. In 1992, the Little White Schoolhouse closed and the parents worried they would no longer have a place to send their children.
"We didn't know what to do. We didn't have a business plan, we just knew it would work," says Greene. Armed with a $1,500 grant, the program began operating again later that fall with two students, dozens of volunteers and its own, new name – the Lighthouse Voc-Ed Center.
The center is marking its 20th anniversary in November, but the big celebration will wait until next year.
"Twenty is great, but the number that's important to us in special education is 21. It means a great deal to us, so that will be the time to celebrate," she explains.
The center ran its programs from donated space at Mystic Congregational Church for six years while staff drafted a long-term plan to continue its work.
"It allowed us to save money and write a grant. We knew that we couldn't keep asking the community for handouts and donations," she says. "We needed to make it a business that we could sustain."
The extended day program gave special education students the opportunity to learn social skills and appropriate behavior, tools that would eventually help them function in their mainstream communities. With a $100,000 grant from UPS, the center opened its first site at 744 Long Hill Road, Groton, which houses its main offices and an art gallery. With the exception of one year, LVEC opened a satellite site annually from 2003-08.
"I'm still humbled every time I walk into one of our sites because I know what it takes to get there," says Greene.
"While Kathy would downplay her part, she is truly the reason for the success of the agency and she should be honored for her work," said Lynda L. Bedri, a founding member of Lighthouse's board of directors and director of Volunteer Services at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital.
"[She] is well known and highly respected in the education community," she added.
In the coming weeks, LVEC will complete the final paperwork that brings the total number of sites to 10 (Groton, Niantic and Norwich), all of which are focused on helping children and young adults with severe disabilities.
Chris Rose, director of The Gallery at Lighthouse, has worked alongside Greene since 2008, when the art gallery first opened its doors. The gallery came to fruition, they say, because it was often difficult for the center's students to get their artwork shown in the community. Now, a new artist – either mainstream or from the center — is showcased every six weeks.
Gallery employees are residents at the center's Transition Academy, a center home in Niantic where students ages 18 to 21 identified with Asperger's Syndrome live. Asperger's is a developmental disorder that affects a person's ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others.
"It's rather a mundane task, sitting at a gallery waiting for people to come in," says Rose. "We get several kinds of people that come in, so the goal was to get our students to understand those cues and differences.
"When the students are trained, they are a help to me because I can leave them and get other errands done, like interview new artists."
Through real-life experiences, such as applying for and maintaining a job, the Transition Academy helps students develop resources in the community that will help them maintain their independence once they leave the Niantic home.
Michael Bacci, who greets visitors at the gallery door, was a student at the Transition Academy for less than two years. He began working in the main office in 2007, answering phones and shredding paper. He now orders supplies for all of the center's sites and writes the bi-weekly newsletter that is distributed with employee paychecks.
"They kept adding things for me to do and now I'm doing it full time," he says.
In May, Bacci and a friend moved into an apartment within walking distance of the Long Hill Road facility, a transition he described as "nerve-wracking."
"But it worked out in the end. Sometimes you need to branch out, especially for me, a guy who likes staying in his comfort zone," he says.
The gallery site shares space with the center's main offices and a digital media studio, the latter which has proven successful in helping Asperger's students, says Greene. One room is filled with televisions, furniture, video equipment and microphones; another with computers. Students can participate in mock interviews or act as a journalist interviewing a subject.
"It helps them get comfortable in a job situation or meeting someone new," explains the executive director. "These guys are so bright, but the social aspect prevents them from getting a job or making friends."
Greene doesn't believe in coincidences. She says God puts people on the paths He wants them to travel, just as she happened to be living within minutes of a special education facility 25 years ago. She's been in a long-term relationship for 30 years with Alexander Marshall, a person she calls her "support system." The pair has shared major triumphs and disappointments, and Marshall was there when Greene became a mom 10 years ago.
A friend of Greene's had been diagnosed with cancer, so she decided to "interview" all of her friends and family to decide whom she wanted to raise her daughter, Christian. After her biological mother died in March 2003, Christian moved at age 6 from New York to Stonington, where Greene became her legal guardian.
"I never thought I would be a parent. I'm raising this spitfire who is only five feet, who is outspoken and who watched her mom die," she says. "She's been to Girl Scout camp, she's enjoying the outdoors and she just got her first summer job," she says.
"Being on this side of education, with a kid, makes you more invested in what you do. You're judged by what you do when no one's looking," Greene adds. "The people in this community do that kind of work every day."