By Tiffany Merlo Phelps
When Lanier Weed became the first resident of the Peace of Heart Community in January 2019, she found something that completely changed her world: her voice.
Weed, 22, who is non-verbal and profoundly affected by autism, moved into the Ponte Vedra Beach group home for autistic young adults after living in an Orange Park group home for seven years. While the Orange Park facility was clean and safe for Weed and provided an education, her mother wanted something more for her daughter’s future as she got older. And that is exactly what she found at Peace of Heart Community.
“It is a utopia at Peace of Heart Community. It is just an absolute dream come true,” said Weed’s mother, Leslie, who is the founder of the HEAL Foundation (Helping Enrich Autistic Lives). “For years, we were under the misperception that we should treat Lanier as a five-year-old. She could not tell us if she had a headache, a fever or any discomfort. Now at Peace of Heart Community she has learned to communicate through typing.”
Leslie credits Amy and Howard Groshell, Peace of Heart Community founders, for being dedicated to creating a true home for autistic young adults. Amy’s daughter, Gentry, now 24 and severely autistic, also lives at Peace of Heart Community and was previously at the same group home with Lanier, feeling equally bored with her days.
The Groshells developed the idea for Peace of Heart Community in 2017, and the home off Roscoe Boulevard opened in January 2019 with Leslie and Gentry moving in first. Initially, the home was to be for young women only, but later young men moved in as well. They now have seven full-time residents ranging in age from 18 – 35 who are from the local community. A placement agency identifies residents with needs, and the Groshells interview candidates to ensure harmony in the house.
A typical day at Peace of Heart Community begins with a workout, typing modules, life skills lessons, education and plenty of time outside in the garden and around the farm animals. The typing modules help the residents, who are all non-verbal, communicate. Muscle resistance techniques are taught by the staff.
“It is like full body apraxia. Our residents know what they want to say, but they cannot verbalize it,” said Amy.
Houseparents, who also have an autistic son in the house, help foster a healthy home life for the residents. In addition, staff is present for both day and night shifts.
At the center of Peace of Heart Community are the enrichment gardens where fresh vegetables are grown and harvested from Oct. 1 through late June. It is an essential piece of the outreach plan because the community can buy a “share” of the farm, and then visit every Saturday from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. during the season to pick up fresh produce with lettuce being their signature item. Residents also learn how to maintain a garden, and they enjoy the produce in their daily meals.
The Saturday Farmers Markets have become an opportunity for residents and community members to learn from each other in a “fun and uplifting” atmosphere, said Howard. Community members who have autistic children, volunteers and customers who value fresh produce make market days a special community event, he said. Most importantly, friends are made and more exposure is given to the Peace of Heart Community mission and fundraising efforts, the latter being something that does not come naturally to the Groshells.
“It is hard for us to ask for donations. We are not a charity, but we need the help of the community to meet the needs of the autistic community. Everyone has been so generous,” said Howard.
Peace of Heart Community also includes 50 chickens, a pot-bellied pig named Lily, one goat (Marshmallow) and a mini horse named Sammy. All of the animals are rescue animals minus the chickens, and the Groshells are looking for people who may want to sponsor an animal. It costs $300 to $400 a month to care for all the farm animals, said Howard.
Amy said her goal is to help society embrace “presumed competence” when it comes to the very wide spectrum of autism and to provide a place that meets residents’ goals for as long as they need it.
“It is a belief system that everyone has a purpose and meaning in life,” said Amy. “Just because someone is non-verbal does not mean that they do not want the same things in life. Do not have pity on them. Recognize that they are human beings with dreams and goals just like everyone else.”
To that point, Gentry’s dream is “to be an artist and to sell her art.” She also wishes to attend Florida State University. Lanier’s dream is “to be a caring mentor to the silent so parents can get real hope in their hearts” — two dreams recently typed to two very proud mothers.
Email Amy at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit pohc.org to learn more about purchasing a share of the Peace of Heart Community gardens, sponsoring an animal, or volunteering.
Photos courtesy Leslie Weed
Peace of Heart Community enrichment garden.