ORANGE PARK - Henderson Haven is tucked away off Blanding Boulevard on the edge of the Fox Ridge subdivision.
Sherri and Lee Henderson started from their home, then took two suites in the Blanding location. Now they have the whole building. Considering their growth, workload and mission that’s probably for the best.
The nonprofit handles afterschool care and adult transition programs for about 50 disabled persons a month. Most of their students with autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy and the intellectually disabled may have been kicked out of other programs. Sherri Henderson also does student advocacy to prepare parents for Individualized Education Plans.
The haven was founded in 2003 with one student. Lee and Sherri Henderson had experience in the caregiving field in Texas, and from raising their son Trey, who has down syndrome.
“We don’t give up,” Sherri Henderson said. “We really believe with the people who come in here, we’re going to do everything we can.”
The need for care in the county is great, but so is the need for disabled persons to become self-sufficient. When students age out of the afterschool programs, the transition program teaches them life skills such as budgeting or using appliances.
“We presume competence, if they’re 18, we treat them like an 18 year old. If they’re six, we’re going to treat them like a six year old,” Sherri Henderson said. “Just because they can’t walk, talk or feed themselves doesn’t mean that they’re not in there. The best part of it is seeing people come out of their shells.”
It’s not easy, the day before the interview, a student destroyed a door. Their service dog, Dawson, usually can calm a student down. Sherri Henderson jokes that the staff has become adept at fixing holes.
“You’ve got to be flexible. No one therapy works, no one strategy works,” she added. “There’s a physical toll.”
Lee Henderson said the goal was for students to become contributing members of the community like Trey, who is independent and worked.
“Definitely our goal is to get them to where they can have that life,” Lee Henderson said.
The Henderson’s care for a severely disabled student with autism and blindness made Lee Henderson reflect.
“It reminds you real quick why you’re doing this,” he added. “You have to give someone a voice, that’s really the first thing.”
Bridget Watkins’ son, Daniel, has been with Henderson Haven since he was two. Now 21, he can balance a checkbook, bake cookies on his own and tie his shoes. Without the Hendersons, Watkins said she didn’t know if Daniel would be as independent.
“(Sherri Henderson has) taught me not only how to advocate for myself, but other kids as well,” Watkins said.
Lisa Brown is social worker in the county. Her son Jay has attended Henderson Haven for three years. She said there was no service like the haven in Clay County.
“What they’ve done with my son Jay is phenomenal. It’s a place where he’s accepted, where he has friends. He has really excelled,” Brown said. “He feels really good about going there. There was no daycare that would take him.”
Kenny Hendl said his daughter with autism, Kelsey, simply couldn’t get the resources in the county when they moved to the area. A friend recommended they talk to Sherri. Kelsey has gone to Henderson now for seven years.
“As soon as we got there we fell in love with the place and it’s been a godsend,” Hendl said. “They’ve been absolutely great with her.”
Despite the work they do, Sherri Henderson said families or community members might not know about their services. She said buying and remodeling the building, or finding another suitable home was a future challenge.
“It is in my DNA, I will never retire,” Sherri Henderson laughs.
To donate or for more information on programs offered, visit hendersonhaven.org.