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Integrated Lives 

It’s the dead of winter. Yesterday’s snow blankets the rolling hills and many pathways at Triform, a tranquil community set on 125 acres of woods, pastures, streams, and gardens in Columbia County. The sun is shining and life is buzzing around Triform’s seven oddly-named homes: Oona, Orenda, Rowan, Anthea, Christophorus, Tourmaline, and Anatos. Coworkers, students, apprentices, and journeymen are fruitfully clearing snow from the roads and walks, baking bread at the bakery, milking or mucking at the dairy, wandering towards the weavery and therapy center, fixing machinery, and preparing hot lunches. Though the pace of life is peaceful, it is anything but idle—everything here is purposeful, and nothing is without meaning.

Founded in 1979 by coworkers from Camphill Copake, a larger therapeutic community nearby, Triform is a community of 65 people, about half of whom are young adults with special needs. It was originally known as Triform Enterprises Ltd, a bed factory where people with disabilities worked alongside skilled craftsmen in a competitive production environment. Blurring the lines between ability and disability was quite an innovative idea at that time, but by 1982 the writing was on the wall.

“The market was not ready for a healthy bed,” says Stephen Steen, a house-parent from Ireland who speaks with a warm smile and the hint of a once cheekier brogue. “So Triform Enterprises Ltd. slowly developed into a more typical Camphill model.”

The Camphill movement began in Europe in the late-1930s with Dr. Karl König, a Viennese pediatrician who had resolved to dedicate his life to the needs of handicapped children. König was heavily influenced by the work of Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925), an Austrian philosopher who developed a movement—a “spiritual science,” as he put it—called anthroposophy. Based on the belief that humans are essentially spiritual beings intrinsically connected to the universe and to each other, anthroposophy inspired an educational model in which different levels of schooling mirror students’ spiritual stages of development and lead to a concrete experience of the divine. Steiner believed that like all other people the handicapped were spiritually unique and capable of transcending the material world, and thought they should live alongside everyone else. With that philosophy in mind, Dr. König and a small group of young intellectuals and artists began developing a new kind of community for people with disabilities.

 

Before this vision could be realized, however, the political mood in Vienna changed. With the impending Nazi annexation of Austria, König’s study group hastily dissipated. Members variously sought asylum in France, Cyprus, Ireland, and Britain. The future unclear, they promised each other that if they should meet again, they would make something of their commonly shared ideas.

This band of intellectual refugees from the now Nazi-controlled Austria were eventually reunited with Dr. König on the Isle of Man, where they were classified as “enemy aliens” and interned. Under these inauspicious circumstances, they cemented their commitment to life work rooted in two fundamental principles: that people with disabilities are an integral part of every community, and that all life has a spiritual component.

At that time the trend was to warehouse people with disabilities: to institutionalize and dismiss them. Handicapped people were a kind of refugee—expelled, forgotten, homeless, and without community. In 1940, though, through the generosity of the Macmillan publishing family, König and his group were able to start a house in Scotland called Camphill, which included children with disabilities. They developed bonds of kinship and practiced true empathy, and Camphill quickly flourished into a thriving village community and subsequently a global movement with over 100 existing communities.

Stephen Steen and his German wife, Sabine, live in Anthea House with their two daughters, Rosanna and Fionnghoula; Lucy, a volunteer coworker from England; Heidi; Catherine; and A.S.—three young people living with disabilities. Stephen and Sabine, like the other house-parents at Triform, have committed their lives to “this grand social experiment,” as Stephen calls it.

They live here year-round with their children and Triform’s other residents—young adults with autism, mental retardation, learning disabilities, brain trauma, social maladjustment, and emotional disturbances—striving to build a vital and therapeutic community that provides each person with the possibility of healing, independence, and fulfillment of individual potential.

Stephen’s first encounter with Camphill was back in Ireland. Growing up near Belfast against a backdrop of religious separatism and violence, he describes himself in boyhood as sitting on the fence of a viciously divided community, watching all of it go on, shaking his head, and wondering when he’d get his ticket out. One day his mother called. A friend of hers who was a nursing officer at a Camphill community just outside of Belfast, said there was a job available there. Bored and out of work, Stephen went.

“I knew nothing of what I was getting into. But I did have what they call an epiphany,” he says. “Walking into the community I just knew, in one sense, I’d come home. This is what I had been looking for. I walked in and I looked. I heard what these people were doing, that they were working without—you know, in a conventional sense—being paid.”

Triform’s coworkers—representing 14 different nationalities—do not receive wages. They do live in nice homes, take vacations, eat organic foods, wear new clothing, and drive cars. Their children go to excellent schools and they are encouraged to take advantage of outside programs, such as speech or voice training. The system works exceptionally well. Yet certain restrictions may be lifted as Triform’s social model begins to reach a wider group of people in North America, as not getting paid for work is an alien concept in American culture.

Most coworkers, however, do not consider life among Triform’s residents with disabilities a job or a chore, and the conventional dynamics of client and caregiver are absent. The young people living with disabilities at Triform are eager to participate, to give help, to teach, to nurture; they are willing to fulfill a coworker’s psychological and spiritual needs as they accept guidance and care themselves.

“The person with disabilities has gifts—often social gifts—that us so-called normal people don’t have,” Steen explains. “They also represent to us particular aspects of soul, you could say, that we either keep hidden or can never express. And so in a way, the person with disabilities has the opportunity to express a greater wealth of true humanity than the rest of us. They are an integral part of life.”

Focusing on a period of training, adventure, and exploration between childhood and adulthood; young students coming to Triform between the ages of 18 and 24 experience dignified and fulfilling work in many areas of the community: the organic vegetable garden, the organic biodynamic farm and dairy, the landscaping and grounds maintenance group, the weavery, and the bakery. After three years they enter an apprenticeship within one of their chosen fields of work, often supplemented by outside employment opportunities. Then they graduate, choosing either to remain at Triform as “journeymen” or to embark on a new course in life. Much of the decision making happens during Birthday Meetings—annual events in which each resident, his or her parents, typically three coworkers, and perhaps one or two trusted friends come together. They review the past year from many angles and aspects, then look to the future. Often the person has prepared an extraordinary shopping list of goals and aspirations for the coming year. Then everyone works together to fulfill whatever is realistic and within that person’s or the community’s ability, both often exceeding expectations. Once, at a Birthday Meeting, a resident came in and said, “I want to drive.” So the community found a way to teach that person how to operate a car, an achievement previously unimagined.

This February afternoon, Andrea, a Triform resident from New York City, insists on walking me to my car. She confesses she has been crying and having a difficult day, but she is glad we’ve met.

Parting ways, she unexpectedly hugs me and kisses my cheek.

“Thanks for cheering me up. I love you!” she says.

I’m surprised. We had only met five minutes before. I stutter some awkward response.

Andrea’s sudden words have made a profound impression. Her openness and unembarrassed vulnerability—a certain soul quality, say—will remain with me for days. It doesn’t take long for me to realize I’m thankful.

The Triform Camphill Community will hold a 25th anniversary celebration on May 2 at 3:00pm at the Pleshakov Music Center in Hudson. For more information, call (518) 851-9320, or e-mail info@triform.org. For more information on the Triform community, visit www.triform.org

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  • Jennifer Wai-Lan Huang visits the Triform Camphill community.

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