By Becky Aubut
EASTON, Mass. — When life handed Paula Kavolius lemons, she not only made lemonade, she planted an entire grove of lemon trees for everyone to enjoy.
Growing up in Westwood, Kavolius graduated from Boston College, met her husband shortly thereafter, and settled down to have three children in four years. It wasn’t until a year after her youngest, Timothy, was born that she began to sense that he was different. It was a challenging and a slow process because it took his first year of life for her to realize that something was wrong, as Timothy wasn’t hitting his milestones.
“He was my third one and I was quite busy,” recalled Kavolius, “but I think I was in denial that anything was wrong with him. At first he was a very quiet baby, barely cried at all, but when he turned one, he started screaming. He had such a neurological impairment, he would scream eight hours a day for years. He was so impaired, he just couldn’t communicate in any way.”
As Timothy’s condition became more clear, Kavolius said she felt like Michaela Odone, the mother featured in the movie “Lorenzo’s Oil,” where she felt that if she found the right treatment for Timothy, she would cure him; “I was a stubborn, Irish girl who could fix anything if I worked hard enough. I took him to every major hospital in Boston, every major specialist you could imagine; I did afterschool, during the week services from cross-crawl therapy to craniosacral therapy — I’m going to look like a nut, but that’s what I did — speech and OT, and behavioral techniques. You name it, I did it.”
More than six years after Timothy was born, and after spending countless hours looking for the right treatment, Kavolius’ oldest son asked her why she kept doing these things, putting it bluntly to her — “Timmy is not going to talk.” Kavolius immediately countered that the therapy may kick in if given enough time, and her son stated again, “He’s not going to talk, mom.”
“And that’s when I realized I can’t keep schlepping these kids around to all these places their whole life, at some point you have to stop,” said Kavolius. “It was a series of ‘aha’ moments like that, that brought me to a place of acceptance. Oftentimes those moments were marked with incredible sadness; you would feel like you were in the bottom of the barrel and then have to climb out.”
It was around this time she received a phone call from a woman who said she heard that Kavolius could use a break. Kavolius politely declined but the woman continued to call: “She kept trying to get me to take a night off, but I was proud Irish. It’s a great gift but on the other hand, I was so darn stubborn I wouldn’t even take help.”
Kavolius soon discovered the woman was the mother of a friend, doing relief work out of Milton, and that’s when Kavolius opened up and had a real conversation with her. She discovered the woman volunteered for Volunteer Information Agency, which provided one-time emergency financial support to families of special needs children.
“She asked if I would help out, and so by starting to help her I started to realize there were people worse than me,” said Kavolius, who ultimately became a board member. She became more involved and “I got the bug. There are so many people who are silent screamers, drowning, and nobody is helping them. They don’t want to ask for help because this population won’t ask for help. It’s their child, they love their children more than words can say, and they feel as if they’re betraying their child by saying they need help. It’s like such a stigma.”
One thing she noted was the recurring theme of parents needing a break, that there needed to be a place where the special needs children could be dropped off to give the family some time. She knew they needed a place to go to drop off their child, no discrimination of any kind, regardless of the disability. It was something Kavolius could relate to, and one day she was watching TV and she saw a story that moved her.
“I was watching TV and on the news was this couple — and these are the turning-point stories that make me cry,’” said Kavolius, choking up at the memory. “This elderly couple had taken their child in a wheelchair to the emergency room and left him. And on the news they were being brought up on charges. I knew from sitting in my chair that that couple loved their child and they took him to the safest place they knew because they couldn’t do it anymore. They didn’t harm their child, did nothing but love and care for him their whole life, and they were going to be brought up on charges. I was bawling my eyes out [thinking], you’ve got to be kidding me.”
That news story was a pivotal moment and motivated Kavolius to explore options: “My goal was to renovate an old, two-story house and have an emergency relief place.”
In 2003 she founded House of Possibilities (www.HouseofPossibilities.org), and did annual fund-raisers for six years. She launched a HOPe pilot program at the Mass Hospital School in Canton just to test the waters, and “to make sure what I thought would happen would, and people drove two-and-a-half hours to come to our program,” she said. “That validated that this is what God wanted.”
As she continued to raise money, she approached the Yawkey Foundation, who recommended she find a piece of land. Kavolius’ brother said she should look at a college campus and after viewing a few possible locations, she ended up at Stonehill College in Easton.
“God has had a hand in all of this. For the most part, the land around Stonehill College is owned by the Holy Cross Fathers. The parcel we have now was owned by Stonehill, and it was the exact size of land that we were looking for,” said Kavolius, adding the land was unusable by the college for any dorm or building due to its location and size. “It was clear this was what God wanted us to do, and that’s how we ended up here.”
HOPe broke ground in 2008, opening its doors the following year in August. The original idea of a two-story home bloomed into a three-story, 11,000-square-foot facility that offers in-house overnight respite, daycare programs and a plethora of activities. No child is turned away except those in fragile health who need constant doctor’s monitoring, or children who may harm themselves or others.
“It’s like a big, giant home,” said Kavolius. “It’s a miracle.”
During the first year, HOPe had 109 repeat clients. Six years in, and they now have more than 300, adding up to almost 60,000 hours of service.
“It’s sustainable relief,” said Kavolius. “Some people have huge numbers, but ours is a smaller population. Our goal is one-by-one we’re changing lives.”
Stonehill has also benefitted from HOPe through collaborations that include internships, work-study, and the best buddy program. A great example of the partnership is seeing HOPe cheerleaders cheer alongside Stonehill cheerleaders.
“At every game, there are a handful of House of Possibilities cheerleaders right in with the Stonehill cheerleaders. It’s fantastic,” said Kavolius. “Stonehill is, without a doubt, one of our greatest gifts. The students win because they get experiential learning here, but then our clients benefit because they are around typical peers and that’s what they want more than anything.”
The feedback has been phenomenal. Kavolius recently got a note from a woman who said because she had found HOPe, she will fear less for the future of her son. Another woman shared that if it wasn’t for HOPe, she wouldn’t have made it.
“Many of these families don’t have time to say thank-you, so for them to do it is remarkable. Many families say that HOPe has improved their lives in significant ways, and have said their total family is better. It’s changing lives,” said Kavolius.
God seemed to have a hand in the entire project, said Kavolius, even down to the name HOPe: “The name came to me when I was taking a shower, crying my eyes out while thinking my son wouldn’t do anything. And while that happened, I said to myself, stop. That from this day forward, you won’t think about what he won’t do, but will do. That’s where the name came from,” said Kavolius, who added the small “e” to make it different from other HOPE houses. “I think God knew we were going to end up in Easton because now [the acronym] is House of Possibilities Easton. “
Her oldest has graduated from Boston College and works in finance, while her middle child is a student at Stonehill College. Timothy is residentially placed at the Cardinal Cushing School in Hanover.
“My son is not diagnosed,” said Kavolius. “They don’t know what he has and I think God did that perfectly so that I would help all kids like him, and not be biased in any way towards one disability. He does walk. He’s non-verbal; the only word he has is ‘mama,’ and he understands quite a bit through a device (iPad) or gestures.”
HOPe heavily relies on donations, and 50 percent of those who use their services make $25,000 a year or less, so Kavolius never stops looking for ways to keep HOPe alive for her clients. Every day brings a new challenge, but Kavolius says she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Everything is really good. It couldn’t be better. I find joy when people understand the magnitude of the challenge and realize this is important work,” she said. “I walk in and say, ‘Lord, show me who I need to lift today,’ and wait for Him to show me who needs it the most.”