Parents of students, former staff members, and the Greenfield community are reeling after last week’s announcement that the Crotched Mountain School is set to close by the end of this year.
“I just can’t imagine that facility not being there and being a part of our town and the Monadnock Region,” campus chaplain Rev. Dan Osgood said. “The things I’ve learned and the experiences I’ve had, how I’ve seen the amazing healing that’s taken place there, the dedicated staff, many of whom I know — it’s very sad.”
“I love Crotched Mountain and had no idea this was on the horizon. We are shocked. We don’t know what we are going to do,” Elizabeth Lee Davis said. Her 8-year-old daughter, Quinn, has spent the last two years at Crotched Mountain School. “Crotched Mountain has been a godsend, an answer to our prayers,” Davis said. “I’m terribly sad for my child and for all the other children that aren’t going to get what Crotched Mountain offers. They fulfilled their promises to these children and it’s just a huge loss.”
Davis lives in St. Johnsbury, Vt., and has hosted two fundraisers for the school, in addition to collecting personal protective equipment for staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. She wanted to help out in order to be supportive, and didn’t know the school was in financial trouble at the time.
“The one thing I love is they’re honest about what they don’t do well,” Davis said. “If they make a mistake or do something wrong, they don’t sugarcoat it. They’re really honest with communication,” she said. “That might be why this is such a blow.”
Davis’s daughter Quinn was adopted from China. Her main disability is microcephaly and severe brain damage, and she’s autistic, Davis said. “We had her at home for five years, we did everything that we could to meet her needs,” she said. “She requires round-the-clock care, two caregivers all the time when she’s awake and one when she’s asleep. She never, ever stops moving,” Davis said, putting her at constant risk for breaking things, hurting others and herself.
Staff at Crotched Mountain taught Quinn to eat solid foods and feed herself, as well as to be more purposeful with her movements, Davis said. “One of her IEP goals is to sit for, I think, a minute,” she said. The staff were open to learning Quinn and adjusting everything around her, rather than forcing her to fit into an existing system, Davis said. Over the past two years, the staff became the authority on her daughter’s needs, Davis said, and she wonders who will train her daughter’s next caretakers. She is now in conversation with Quinn’s case manager, discussing whether there’s “anything else in the world out there” for her daughter.
Crotched Mountain School was “by far” the best special residential facility for her daughter in New England, Davis said. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Davis said she was afraid the school would have to close down, but the school reassured her with all the steps they were taking. “I knew they were doing everything they could,” she said.
The sudden announcement reminds Davis of another from this spring, when her alma mater Northern Vermont University proposed closing three campuses. The outcry from students, employees, and alumni reversed that decision, Davis said, but Crotched Mountain stakeholders don’t have the same agency. Partly due to HIPAA privacy regulations, Davis has almost no connections to parents of other students. “The alumni of Crotched Mountain are people with severe special needs,” she said, and that she was unaware of any Facebook groups or mailing lists that could help stakeholders to mobilize. “This feels like I have no connections and nothing I can do. We don’t know each other,” she said.
“Anger, sadness, it’s the whole grieving process,” Osgood said, describing the reactions he’s heard from staff and families. “I know they’re going through a very tough time.” Osgood became Crotched Mountain School’s chaplain in 1987. At the time, there were no classes at seminary on providing ministry to people with disabilities. At the time, he said you could hardly find someone in Greenfield who hadn’t worked at the school at some point. “I was just sort of thrown into this and scared to death,” he said, but some of the best of his ministry happened on campus over the next 34 years.
At one point, Osgood ran three services a week on campus: one for the hospital, one for people in the brain injury unit, and one for the residents in group homes. There were one-on-one and group bible studies for residents, big Thanksgiving and Christmas services, and a joint service with the Catholic chaplain to commemorate the week of prayer for Christian unity, he said. Osgood served as chair of the ethics committee and taught ethics to new employees. He remembers hosting a large group of interns from Korea, who participated in a bible study and came to his house for a cookout. Sometimes residents would vacuum and clean the ministry center with their staff, Osgood said. Greenfield Covenant Church worshiped on the campus for the past 11 years and some of the congregation are employees, he said. Osgood has been interacting with the school remotely since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but he said he hopes for an opportunity for current and former staff and alumni to gather and celebrate the institution.
“I guess it wasn’t a complete surprise,” Osgood said; he’d seen programs close on campus over the years. “I’m just praying that something new will happen there. I can’t believe that facility would just sit there and crumble,” he said. “I’m sad but also a little disturbed that we as a culture and a society don’t place the value on people with disabilities that we should. There’s a lot of talk, but the money’s not there. The resources are not there.”
“The question to be asked is, what is the state of special education in New Hampshire, what are the services for people with intellectual disabilities and people that present unique challenges?” Jon Eriquezzo asked. Eriquezzo was vice president of innovation when he left the school in 2019 after 18 years on staff, and is a guardian for someone who had been looking forward to attending the school.
“When we closed our hospital, there was a lot of support from the state and we were able to coordinate with other hospitals, both for employees and for patients. This is a little different. There aren’t beds out there for these people. There aren’t classrooms out there,” he said. “I do know and trust that Crotched Mountain will be doing everything they can, it’s just not apparent they can do it alone.”
COVID-19 was a hard hit for many nonprofits supporting people with disabilities, after four years with insubstantial pay or funding increases, Eriquezzo said. “For the average students with special needs, it’s fine, but there are a lot of outliers out there that need unique services,” he said. “I have people asking me, “Should we move to Vermont?” Does that show families have unrealistic expectations, or the state has a lack of crucial services?” he asked. “I really hope that families can get the support from the state in terms of transition.”