Gavin & Friends: a place for adults with disabilities to gather in downtown Guilford, with support from SARAH
Sarah Page Kyrcz
Dec. 6, 2022
GUILFORD — For nine years, Linda Toscano has been searching for a forever home for her son, Gavin Toscano-Popick.
“I wanted to make sure he had something that was going to be stable for the rest of his life,” she said
Gavin Toscano-Popick, 18, is autistic and currently a senior at Guilford High School. He will be able to stay in the public school system until he is 21 years old.
Her plans were solidified when she and her ex-husband, Kurt Popick, purchased 69 Boston St. and the house next door, 71 Boston St., in Guilford.
The two properties will afford Toscano a place for her son to live along with two other disabled individuals at 71 Boston St. and open a day program for adults with disabilities, next door.
The first fundraising event for this project will be “A Night Out with Gavin & Friends,” Monday, Dec. 12 from 6 – 9 p.m. at Prime on Whitfield, 65 Whitfield St., Guilford. Tickets are $250 or $1,500 for a table for four.
“It’s been a long time of me thinking of what’s going to happen to him after he ages out of the school system,” Toscano said.
Toscano also has a 15-year-old daughter, Laila Toscano-Popick, a sophomore at Guilford High School.
Gavin & Friends is a nod to Gavin’s love of Thomas the Tank Engine, the no.1 tank engine from Thomas & Friends, a British children’s television series that came to the United States in the 1990s.
Toscano is working in collaboration with SARAH Tuxis.
“SARAH is going to be the one who runs the program,” said Toscano. “Once I get this done, they will be paying me a rent and they will be running the program.”
Debbie Ruotolo, associate executive director at SARAH Tuxis, talked about this partnership.
“Our nonprofit will be running Gavin & Friends,” she said.
“The goal is to have the people that we support have enviable lives,” she said. “So, we hope to have between 12 and 16 people that we support there.”
Ruotolo said “this particular location, Gavin & Friends, will have more independent people.”
“We’re not just going to be sitting around in the building the whole time,” she said. “We want them to be out in the community, volunteering, learning life skills, having a presence on the green, know and being part of their community.”
Toscano talked about finding this unique piece of property in just the right location.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” Toscano said. “It was so organic, the way it happened.”
This Guilford mother and real estate agent was searching for a location near the center of town.
“I wanted him to stay in Guilford,” she said. “Everybody knows him. The police know him. It’s just safe.”
“I knew he’d never be able to drive,” she said, “so I wanted him to have a community where he could just walk around and have a meaningful life, be challenged and have more independence.”
Before solidifying her plan for the day program, she visited the Tuxis Harbor at 433 Boston Post Road, Westbrook.
The Harbor is under the auspices of SARAH Tuxis.
“When I walked through, I thought, ‘This is unbelievable,’” Toscano said.
“They just have someplace where they can go and work on skills and crafts and recreation and activities of daily living,” she said.
Kirsty Wohl’s 22-year-old son, Max Turbucz, lives in a SARAH, Inc. group home and has been involved with SARAH Tuxis since August. He regularly attends the Harbor.
Max has “severe autism and some neuro degenerative issues, said the Guilford mother. It was important for him to be in a safe, nurturing program.”
“It’s like the Ritz-Carlton of day programs,” said this Guilford mother, referring to the luxury hotel and resort chain.
“If you’re going to have your child in safe hands you want to be with SARAH,” she said.
SARAH Tuxis has been in the community for 32 years.
Since 1990, SARAH Tuxis’ has grown from supporting 24 individuals in group homes with a staff of 40, to supporting over 100 individuals with 250 staff in a variety of settings, which include: group living, supported living, in-home support, fee for service contracts and day support, according to sarah-tuxis.org.
After speaking with this shoreline-based program, Toscano began work on her property.
The 2,136-square-foot former home of April Rose Designs and before that, the Cotton Shop, 69 Boston St. is currently being remodeled.
Toscano and SARAH Tuxis are working together to design the space.
Once complete, this will include a first floor and two loft areas on the second floor. There is also a third floor, but Toscano is holding off on any renovation of that space at this time.
The premises will include a handicapped entrance side at the rear and east side of the building.
The side entrance will be within a courtyard that currently connects the two houses. This area will be gated off and include flower and vegetable gardens available to the program participants.
Once inside the building, the first floor will include a mud room, with cubbies; kitchen area, with a big table for meals and craft projects; multi media room for computers, iPads and gaming devices; handicapped bathroom, complete with a hoist to lift handicapped individuals; arts and crafts station; a barbershop station, with a chair, barber pole and mirror, along with a nail station; and a music room and a lounge area with couches, big screen TV and electric fireplace.
Toscano talked about including the barber station.
“For my son, getting a haircut, was torture,” she recalled. “We worked on that for years.”
“So, it’s been an ongoing issue where we just had to do it at home,” she said. “Now we’ve gotten him back to going into a barber shop every once in a while.”
In the back area of the upstairs will be a one-bedroom apartment for “respite,” Toscano said.
“They’ll have trained staff to stay with them in this apartment that’ll have an efficiency kitchen, a washer and dryer, a TV, a couch,” she said.
“They can stay there and their parents know that they’re being taken care of by a trained staff,” she said.
Toscano knows firsthand the dilemma of leaving her son in good hands.
“One of my biggest things was, there were times that I never went on vacation for eight or nine years,” she said. “I didn’t have anybody who was capable of watching my son and being able to take care of him.”
“My daughter’s younger and I’m a single mom,” she said.
In the front loft area will be a sensory room and another efficiency kitchen with a couch, table and big screen TV, just “a mini house.”
When Toscano-Popick is ready to move into 71 Boston St., Toscano will commence rehabbing that space for the residential program.
“I’ll make it happen,” she said. “It’s going to make it happen,” said Toscano. “How can I not make it happen.”
Wohl applauds Toscano.
“I’m really proud of Linda for doing what she’s doing because we really need more residential homes for these adults with disabilities and more day programs, “said Wohl. “There’s a real need for it, especially on the Shoreline.”
Ruotolo talked about the importance of the program for SARAH Tuxis clients.
“Just going back to the word, enviable lives,” she said. “I hope that they’re going to thrive and they’re going to just a part of the same activities that you and I would have and be out and about and learn some skills so that they can develop independence.”
“A Night Out with Gavin & Friends,” Monday, Dec. 12 from 6 – 9 p.m. at Prime on Whitfield, 65 Whitfield St., Guilford. Tickets are $250 or $1,500 for a table for four and can be purchased at sarahfoundation.org.
Sarah Page Kyrcz