Cultivating a Sense of Purpose

By Beacon Staff

SOMERS – On a sunny September day, a group of adults with developmental disabilities sat at a large dining table at Lighthouse Christian Home, eating a zesty salad made of greens grown in their garden. Outside their cows roamed the fields and their pigs oinked in pens. Their chickens clucked around like chickens do.

The key word here, the word that drives Lighthouse Christian Home’s unique philosophy, is “their.” These adults with developmental disabilities have ownership, a claim to self-fulfillment and self-sufficiency. At their Flathead Valley home and farm, they are asked to seize life. And they do.

“They have everything they need to have a fulfilling life,” Executive Director Shirley Willis said. “That’s what we all need is a fulfilling life, but that’s the biggest struggle with individuals with disabilities – having a fulfilling life.”

Lighthouse Christian Home, situated in the heart of the valley’s farmland between Somers and Kalispell, is a nondenominational, nonprofit organization that uses the motto: “Faith, Farm and Family.” It sits on 40 acres donated by Lowell Bartals of the Helena-based “Farm in the Dell” program, which serves individuals with developmental disabilities. Peter and Denise Pelchen opened the home in 1998.

Aided by staff and outside volunteers, the 12 residents tend to a robust garden and various populations of livestock. A great deal, though not all, of their food comes from what is grown and raised there.

Willis said there are practical benefits to such a system. In the summer, grocery bills are less than $700 per month for all of the residents plus an average of two staff members for three meals per day. That pencils out to about 71 cents a meal. The food is healthy, local and tasty. Even in the winter, frozen and stored food contributes to reduced grocery bills.

But beyond the practicalities are benefits that are harder to immediately identify, and their impact affects much more than the bottom line. Willis said growing food and being responsible for livestock contribute to a sense of purpose – in anybody, and especially in Lighthouse Christian Home’s residents.

Willis, who has worked with developmental disabilities for 30 years, said the group home’s “model is unique – across the board.”

“In my opinion, it works,” she said. “It just flat out works. It gives them satisfaction and self-worth and makes them feel that they’re providing for themselves.”

Willis motioned to the residents at the table, who were eating, joking and giggling, and added: “I mean, just look. Is it not impressive?”

The residents have their own rooms located in specific male and female wings. They have daily chores interspersed with games, activities and meals. They are taught to operate as a family, treating each other as brothers and sisters and operating under the fundamental principles of communal living.

Each room reflects its inhabitant’s personality. There are sports fans, music lovers and collectors, all encouraged to express themselves.

“They are very proud of their home,” Willis said. “They know it’s a blessing.”

Located upstairs, along with bedrooms, are a living room, kitchen and open dining area. In the basement is a game and activity room, with exercise machines, a “man cave” with televisions, basketball hoops and more. Also downstairs is the work area where residents place labels on Montana Coffee Traders bags. They are paid for their work.

Andrea Kossler, who lives with three other women in a section of the house reserved for more independent residents, says she feels “grateful” to live at Lighthouse Christian Home. The residents and staff, she said, are her family. Kossler has been at the home for seven years.

“I don’t think I could live on my own,” she said. “I think I’d be lonely. You come here and you have people buzzing all over the place.”

About 60 percent of Lighthouse Christian Home’s budget comes from fees that the residents’ families pay. Fundraising and donations account for the other 40 percent.

“We just feel fortunate and blessed that people in the community feel that this is an exceptional enough program that they feel it’s worthy of their support,” Willis said.

One of the year’s biggest fundraisers is the upcoming Harvest Festival, scheduled on Saturday Sept. 17 at the North Somers Road property. Last year, Willis said almost 300 people attended the festival. The public is invited.

There are a number of activities on tap for this fall’s Harvest Festival, including raffles, live music, hay rides, a petting zoo, face painting, games, a bake sale, mini buggy rides and “Cow Chip Bingo.”

The event is held from noon to 5 p.m. at 384 N. Somers Rd. For more information on the Harvest Festival or the Lighthouse Christian Home, call (406) 857-3276.

“It’s about awareness of who we are and what we do,” Willis said.

And they enjoy what they do. Out on the farm, life is good.

“The lifestyle is healthy, it’s rewarding, it’s good for your soul,” Willis said.