Della Dixon is among those who are thriving at Pleasanton complex for adults with special needs
By JON BECKER | Bay Area News Group
PLEASANTON — Della Dixon had always felt out of place, as if she didn’t belong. Growing up developmentally disabled in an abusive household and then bouncing in and out of the foster care system can have that effect on a person.
From physical abuse leading to her deafness as a small child, to living on her own at 16, to raising three daughters by herself after a troubled marriage dissolved, life has thrown a lot Dixon’s way.
“I’ve had a tremendously hard life,” Dixon said recently through an American Sign Language interpreter. “But I’m a survivor.”
More than merely surviving, Dixon, 56, is thriving in her new one-bedroom home at Sunflower Hill, an organization that helps adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities such as autism, Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and other chromosomal differences, gain skills to live independently at Irby Ranch in Pleasanton.
Through the East Bay Times’ annual Share the Spirit campaign, which seeks to raise money for the most vulnerable in our communities, Sunflower Hill at Irby Ranch is hoping to raise $7,500 to help intellectually or developmentally disabled adults like Dixon, and others outside Irby Ranch gain skills to live independently.
“She’s a very, very special lady who hasn’t had an easy life, and honestly, she’s very inspiring,” said Pamela Zielske, the advancement director for the non-profit Sunflower Hill.
Dixon’s face clearly conveys what her muffled words and rudimentary signing sometimes can’t. Traces of the pain and struggles she has dealt with are often obscured by a smile so big it pushes her eyeglasses upward.
Asked about living in one of the 30 affordable rental units at Sunflower Hill’s 1.64-acre spread at Irby Ranch, she is ecstatic. “I love it! I love it!” she said through the interpreter. “There’s nothing that feels wrong here.”
Dixon’s 496-square foot place has a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen and a family room — space to just be herself.
Unlike other assisted public housing Dixon has lived in over the years, Irby Ranch offers her so much more. Besides the idyllic setting and a safe environment for her and her 12-year-old Chihuahua named Dumpling, it has given her a best friend. Jennifer Crandall, one of two other deaf residents, is Dixon’s constant sidekick.
This place has also given her a sense of self-worth. Here residents, no matter their disability, can learn about things such as cooking, painting and even sign language. Dixon specializes in all three programs and works to share her expertise with others.
When Della and her dog aren’t walking around the complex and neighborhood looking to interact with residents, she can be found baking cookies or making one of her popular soups to share, or working on a professional-quality painting to donate or sell.
“Della is a leader and a role model for many of them,” said Pratimajit Kaur, the residential programs manager, adding that Dixon has grown from an apprehensive participant to an enthusiastic advocate for others. “She’s gained confidence in herself and she really helps others with their confidence.”
Sunflower Hill is planning to open two more communities for adults with special needs. Construction on a 38-unit complex in Lafayette is scheduled for 2023, with a projected 2025 opening. There’s also a proposed 22-unit site in Dublin.
The need is great.
Dixon admitted living in previous apartments in the Tri-Valley area was often an isolating experience. At those homes, she said tenants would sometimes “stop and stare or look at me weird” or otherwise make her feel unwelcome.
“It was hard for me because I didn’t know how to communicate with people very well,” said Dixon, who like many deaf people uses just basic sign language and relies mostly on lip reading. “I feel this place is the best for me. It makes me feel self-confident in who I am.”
In many ways, Dixon represents all that’s possible for Sunflower Hill residents.
“She’s truly a genuine person, who always greets you with a smile. I can’t think of a more positive resident at Irby Ranch,” said Jen Lenard-Benson, Sunflower Hill’s executive director. “She’s just so grateful to be living independently.”
The sense of community at Irby Ranch, fostered by movie nights and game nights, and the rave reviews from residents and their immediate families have made Sunflower Hill a popular destination for others with disabilities seeking a more fulfilling life. Zielske said there’s currently a waiting list of well over 200 people hoping to live at Sunflower Hill. Residents pay a below-market rental fee based on their income qualifications.
“Affordable residential communities for adults with developmental disabilities are so rare. So housing for this population is really in demand,” Zielske said.
Dixon, who grew up in Dublin, was one of the first residents when Irby Ranch opened in November 2020 and became the Tri-Valley’s first independent, residential community for those with disabilities.
“I just love this place … it’s the best place,” Dixon said with a trace of tears in her eyes. “I feel accepted as who I am here. And it’s amazing.
How to Help
Donations will help Sunflower Hill provide programming and activities at Irby Ranch to help intellectually or developmentally disabled adults develop skills to support independent living. The programs will also be offered to 25 individuals outside of Irby Ranch.
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