A celebration of SDC’s residents, legacy
The last 100 or so developmentally disabled clients housed at Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) are scheduled to be moved to other facilities by the end of the year, and a unique effort is underway to make sure that their images and stories are not forgotten.
The Eldridge Portraits Project started in earnest at the beginning of 2017 – an ambitious effort to take professional photographs of as many remaining clients and their families, guardians and conservators as possible.
“We want this to be a living history project,” said project manager Carolyn Allekna Todhunter. “To honor the clients and the thousands who have lived here over the years, and to engage public awareness of this historical place.”
Todhunter is part of a three-person, volunteer team that includes professional photographers Christian Pease and Joseph Garappolo, founders of Light at 11B studio in Palo Alto.
Pease had been employed in the past at SDC as a media specialist, and Todhunter had a close to 25-year career at SDC, holding numerous jobs ranging from psychiatric technician to adult education teacher.
Pease and Todhunter ran into each other at an SDC alumni event in 2016 and Pease talked about an idea he had for a multimedia exhibit on the SDC. He was looking for a project manager who had a special feel and affection for the SDC community and its clients. Todhunter clearly filled that job description.
While much of the public focus lately has been on the development future of the SDC grounds and its 900 acres and 145 buildings, the Eldridge Portraits Project takes a more intimate and personal tack, offering a celebration of a legacy – over 100 years of clients, caregivers, and community.
It took about a year to navigate the clearance from the State of California’s Department of Developmental Services for the Eldridge Portraits Project, given the multiple health and privacy concerns of some of the most vulnerable clients in the state’s health care system.
The project team worked to gain the trust and support of SDC administrators and line staff, as well as the essential backing of the SDC’s Parent Hospital Association (PHA).
“I thought, how great it was that the residents of SDC and their loved ones were being offered an opportunity to capture a moment in time in a family portrait, and to share their stories,” said JJ Fernandez, SDC’s assistant to the executive director, when he first heard about the project.
Many details needed to be worked out before taking anyone’s photo. Consent had to be given by the client’s conservator. After consent, photo shoot dates had to be determined, families coordinated (some have come from out of state), communication had to be made with social workers and unit supervisors, etc. In all, about 30-40 hours of advance work is needed to set up one shoot.
The day of a shoot, client sensitivities need to be taken into consideration – the goal is for a positive experience. What’s the best time of day for the client? What does the client always expect first when his or her family comes to visit? What are the clothing options?
A space on the unit is cleared to set up a “studio” with all the professional backdrops and two high-grade digital cameras (one for color, one monochrome).
“It feels like you’re in a love cocoon,” said Todhunter. “We wait for the family to interact, and wait for the right shot. We see the delight they have in each other’s faces. They often leave in tears.” An average shoot takes just 15-20 minutes, depending on the tolerance and comfort of the client.
The results of the portraits are impressive, evoking a sense of family and providing participants with perhaps their first-ever professional photograph.
“The portraits inform and remind us of what we share in common, no matter our abilities,” said Pease.
Each person in the photo gets a free, professionally matted portrait, including one for the client to take to his or her new home when eventually placed out of SDC.
So far, 24 clients have had their portraits taken, with more in the planning stages. Two months of planning were lost due to the fires, causing even more of a sense of urgency with the end of 2018 looming.
The portraits are just part of plan to create a bigger SDC exhibit, one that includes historical SDC photographs, written narratives, vintage family photos to go along with the modern portraits, a history of medical and institutional care at SDC, and more.
It is hoped that such an exhibit would have shows at galleries in the county and elsewhere, and eventually find a home at some kind of future SDC museum on the campus.
Todhunter said the Eldridge Portraits Project has really been a team effort, noting the help of the Sonoma Land Trust (which provided seed money at the start), Glen Ellen Historical Society, PHA, and SDC staff.
For Todhunter, Pease, and Garoppolo, the project has been a labor of love, a journey to help ensure that there is a visual and written record of the last clients at SDC, a facility that first opened its doors in 1891.
“It’s been an honor to get to know the families,” said Todhunter. “This is the story of the people who lived here.”
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