Here we are serving people who have been at the back of the line in society their entire lives,” said Doug McNeill, CEO of Laradon, a Denver school that specializes in individualized programs and schooling for adults and children with special needs.
The school was created by Joseph and Elizabeth Calabrese in 1948 after being denied a public school education for their two special needs sons. The Calabrese’s invested their life savings into creating Laradon, named after their sons Larry and Don.
“Within a year they had a handful of kids,” said McNeill, “and now we have 27 houses, and we have a number of partnerships.” The school, located in Globeville, was the first in the Rocky Mountain region to offer guidance and education to families with disabled children or relatives.
50 years later the beautiful Laradon campus sits on 10 acres and has integrated five unique programs specifically designed to support over 500 children and adults with special needs. The school employs nearly 250 educators and caregivers who all contribute to the vast array of services.
“It’s a privilege and it’s a joy” McNeill said of his work.
In five main programs including the Laradon school, the Calabrese Youth Center, the Adult Day Program, the Adult Employment Program, and the Community Living Services, students and participants of all ages are able to grow, learn, and lead fulfilling and rich lives within their communities.
Laradon’s mission is to provide inclusive employment opportunities and resources in an accommodating space. The school, which serves children 5-21 years old, focuses on problem solving and critical thinking skills in developmental areas such as social, motor, self-help, and communication skills.
The Laradon Career Center, newly opened in January 2022, is a 132 unit affordable housing development equipped with a career center on the ground floor. Residents and participants can engage in a curriculum of core classes that outline resume building, job search and application, interview preparation, and job placement.
Participants work independently or in a group for various places around Denver including Brewability, Arc Thrift Store, Hilton Denver City Center, and Denver Zoo.
The Host Home Program within Laradon works with volunteer households to provide a safe and stable home environment that encourages independence. Erin Bargman, a Denver native who has an intellectual developmental disorder and has appeared on several news channels, has lived with her host family for 11 years. “I was on channel 9 news and channel 4 news, and I was very popular,” she said, laughing.
“I love Laradon,” Bargman said, who lost her grandmother and caretaker in 2011. Bargman now works through the Laradon Employment Program at the Salvation Army and Coors Field.
Workshops within the Career Center implement understanding of professional documents, financial competency, navigating the workspace, and diversity and equity. The center provides a space for individuals to learn on their own and with their peers and team leaders.
McNeill said, “the whole point of what we’re doing is to get them [the participants] out of institutions and equip them in a way that they can live successfully in community settings, with another family and with their own family—and then have the tools and the skills and behaviors to succeed.”
Laradon works with a series of partners including Habitat for Humanity, Tepeyac Health, and Denver Health, in addition to others. “Where we find a gap, we find a partner,” McNeill said.
Among the most common disabilities Laradon serves are cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, severe autism, physical disability, intellectual disability, and severe obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“Fridays I volunteer at the Arc,” said Tinisha Lowman, a young woman also with a developmental disorder. Five days a week Lowman returns to Laradon to work on skill building and then goes to Brewability for her shift. “It’s a restaurant that serves pizza and beer,” she explained. Lowman has lived with her host family through Laradon for five years and has several roommates who also attend the school. “In April I’m going to start doing soccer with the Special Olympics,” she said.
With 15 kids living on campus, the adult employment and living programs, and the preschool, Laradon has created a safe place using a multidisciplinary approach. “These are high need individuals,” McNeill said, “and they deserve to earn the respect of society–and our job here is to equip them so they can participate in home life, community life, social life, work life. That’s our job.”
By supporting children and adults with disabilities, Laradon has gained national recognition as a groundbreaking establishment changing the way diverse communities come together.
“If you have a bad day you got to come over here—within two minutes you’ll have a smile on your face,” McNeill said, “and we owe it all to Joe and Elizabeth Calabrese.”