Camphill Communities: Special Places for Special People

What if there were places for adults with disabilities to live, grow and eat delicious food?  Places where they are treated with respect, participate fully in meaningful work, and live in nurturing and supportive multi-generational family-type atmospheres?  Well there are more than 100 such “life-sharing” communities in over 20 countries in Europe, North America, Africa and India. They are called Camphill Communities.

Last month I attended the Camphill Symposium “Being Human in the Twenty-First Century: Toward New Thinking,” celebrating 50 years of Camphill in North America.  My goal was to explore Camphill communities as alternatives for the multitude of young adults with special needs graduating this year from our high schools, and for others in their twenties and thirties whose parents are aging and who languish at home without a social network or life skills.

The symposium brought together almost 100 folks from a variety of disciplines.  I met social thinkers, environmentalists, scientists and members of a dozen life-sharing communities who spoke passionately about their desires for collaboration and cross polination.

The Camphill community model is based on the teachings of the philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925).  Steiner’s philosophy melds body, mind and spirit to apply “spiritual science” to all aspects of life. The legacy of this true Renaissance man is an amazing array of accomplishments, including a worldwide network of Waldorf Schools, a farming system now known as Biodynamic agriculture, holistic medicine encompassing a broad range of complementary treatments, as well as art, architecture, and even ethical banking!  His writing, including about 30 books, was so prolific that no one even knows how many lectures he authored, but it is estimated to be well over 6000!  Today, his teachings are known as “Anthroposophy” and practiced around the world.

The Camphill movement was founded in the 1940s by an Austrian pediatrician and follower of Steiner, named Karl Konig.  Anthroposophists believe that every human being possesses a healthy inner personality that is independent of physical, developmental, cognitive or emotional disability.

The symposium took place at Camphill Village Kimberton Hills, PA, near Valley Forge, a vibrant farming and handcrafting community of about 100, including both neurotypical  individuals of all ages and 40 adults with developmental disabilities. At Kimberton Hills, Copake Camphill Village in New York, Heartbeet in Vermont, and Camphill Village Minnesota, as well as in Camphill communities worldwide, villagers live in small homes, learn vocations, eat what they grow, move, paint and live anthroposophy 24/7. Neurotypical adults and their families, including young children, support and care for each other, the land and the environment around them, following organic and biodynamic principles whenever possible.

Each day of the symposium had a theme.  Invited speakers presented to the group as a whole, and then intimate focus groups of mixed ages, abilities and disciplines fleshed out the subjects further. The conversational sessions were enhanced by an artistic activity of our choosing.  Offerings included pastel painting, poetry, clowning, eurhythmy (a form of therapeutic movement) or singing.  We dined together for lunch and supper in the newly renovated café on delicious locally prepared cuisine. I listened to and shared insights with some astounding people during these opportunities.

Shelley Burtt, the Executive Director of the Camphill Foundation, spoke of “robust inclusion.”  She believes that society needs to be more open and expand its thinking about what is “normal.”  This process includes finding a new vocabulary that does not pathologize, but rather is accepting of people with differences in abilities and knowledge.

Judith Snow, who despite being paralyzed from the neck down, concurred with Shelley, urging us to support inclusive, not exclusive communities. Judith, who has a master’s degree, fully participated in all symposium activities in her wheelchair, which she propels by blowing into a tube.  With the help of a personal assistant, she spoke passionately about the assets individuals like herself bring to communities.  As a life-long advocacy for the disabled, she calls herself a “social inventor,” in addition to being a sought after motivational speaker and visual artist.

Coleman Lyles, President of the Camphill Communities of California expertly and equitably facilitated the morning focus group in which I participated.  His lifetime experiences with and love of the Camphill model is palpable.  He understands the history of the movement and its roots, yet has a vision for its future, as well.  The session he monitored on “nature, nurture and technology” was memorable in that he helped the group see how these forces can live compatibly in today’s society.

Eugene Schwartz, a veteran consultant and expert on both Waldorf education and Camphill communities, was a member of my focus group.  He has labored for over 30 years to make Steiner’s work available to the public through his extensive website and teachings.  He believes in the power of Camphill to spin off new communities to meet the needs of today’s populations of adults with special needs.

Tom Stearns, President and founder of High Mowing Organic Seeds in Vermont, turned a seed-collecting hobby into one of the leading organic seed companies in the United States.  Tom agreed with Eugene, and spoke to Steiner’s sense of urgency, which frequently fueled his inspirations into action.  He described the Camphill communities as the seeds for future organic-based farms for the disabled.

Barton Kirk, a fellow Pittsburgher, with whom I traveled to Kimberton Hills, and shared my artistic experience painting with pastels, is an ecological engineer who plants other types of seeds.  His seeds are ideas that germinate into innovative solutions for water and waste problems.  Barton grew up with community supported agriculture (CSA) and interned at Camphill Kimberton Hills. Today he is focusing on interdependence instead of independence in his work.

Hannah Schwartz, (no relation to Eugene), the vibrant co-founder of the newest American Camphill community, Hearbeet, is a true breath of fresh air. She grew up at Kimberton Hills. The late Judith Bluestone, founder  of HANDLE, a sensory-motor program she developed, would be ecstatic to learn that Hannah has introduced the HANDLE method to several Camphill communities.  Accompanying Hannah to the symposium were several of her villagers, including an extremely appealing couple, both with Down syndrome.  Hannah recounted that each had lost over 100 pounds since moving to Heartbeet.  Both participated fully in the symposium, making relevant comments, reading poetry and socializing with others.  Their warmth, ingenuous curiosity and passion brought tears to my eyes. Hannah plans to expand Heartbeet to include young adults with autism in the near future. I hope to visit her this summer in my travels to New England.

Peter Bruckner, my extraordinary pastel instructor, is a multi-faceted artist who heightened my enjoyment of the symposium. While I signed up for “painting,” I did so with fear and trepidation. Peter made it so much fun that I went out and bought some pastels to share my new-found skills with my daughter and grand-daughter. Over Mother’s Day weekend, we spent a full afternoon painting.  In addition to teaching art at Camphill communities, Peter makes one-of-a-kind jewelry, writes poetry, paints, and is the founder of a touring marionette theatre. Peter’s huge heart extended to everyone at the symposium as he sprinkled his talents and humor among us.

Several non-profits are now focusing their attention on developing programs for adults with autism and related disorders.  The Autism Research Institute (ARI) has publishes a bulletin on the subject, and  The Autism Trust from the UK, has launched a United States initiative to establish franchised “Centers for Excellence”  in all 50 states and many other countries, a creating worldwide virtual campus adult community. DDR too is looking at alternatives. I strongly believe that restrictive, non-inclusive communities are counter to what I experienced  at Camphill.  I urge all of those involved in planning for adults to take a look at the Camphill model.  I think that once you see the love, respect and interdependent support in each unique community, you too will choke up with emotion.  For over 50 years Camphill’s success has spoken for itself all over the world. Why reinvent the wheel?


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