Tucked away on a quiet Scotts Valley street stands a house filled with love, hope, heartbreak and strength. The five people who live there have all been victim to accidents that left them with brain damage, paralysis or both.
But they are not broken, and the house has a warmth that is undeniable.
The Assisted Living Project is a nonprofit that was born out of tragedy but has provided a space for healing for those who live there. The nonprofit first established a house on Mission Street in Santa Cruz in 1996 and then moved to the Glenwood area five years ago.
Crystal Dunniway helped create the project after her daughter Michelle suffered severe brain stem damage when hit head on by semi-truck in 1994. The accident left her in a wheelchair, unable to speak and reliant on a feeding tube. She had just turned 19 years old when it happened.
“There aren’t many options for young adults with traumatic brain and body injuries to live,” Dunniway said. “And my daughter should not have to be in a nursing home.”
Dunniway adopted her daughter from Vietnam and raised her in Boulder Creek. Typically the only options available for those with severe body and brain injuries are to move into nursing homes or live with family members who might not be prepared to address all their needs, Dunniway said.
Most of the residents at the Glenwood house receive Social Security benefits and have little money, which means shared living is the only way to avoid being institutionalized.
Scott Shults, a 41-year-old with a sense of humor that rivals John Stewart’s, has a mean handshake — quite a feat after years of being unable to move his right arm after the motorcycle accident that left him with brain damage and in a wheelchair.
“I love it here; it’s my valley,” Shults said, making a play on the name he shares with the city.
The motorcycle accident happened in 1996, when he was 27 years old and on his way to see his grandmother. He was not at fault.
“I didn’t break one bone or damage my helmet, but it left me with brain damage,” he said. “The doctors told my mom I wouldn’t make it, and if I did, I’d be brain dead.”
Before going to live at the Glenwood house, Shults lived at Pleasant Care (now Santa Cruz Skilled Nursing Center), a nursing home in Santa Cruz, for nine years.
Shults, an avid Raiders fan, still volunteers at the center and is also an avid fundraiser for the Assisted Living Project. He started walking again two years ago.
Dunniway said Shults has come a long way since he moved to the Glenwood house.
“It’s crazy to put Scott in a nursing home that can cost $5,000 a month when he only needs a few hours of help every day,” Dunniway said. “That’s why this house is important: It gives him a chance to live more independently.”
Anthony Stack, a handsome 28-year-old with kind eyes from Los Angeles, is the most recent addition to the Glenwood house. He was paralyzed from the waist down three years ago after he survived a 30-foot fall.
“Scott has really helped make me a more patient person,” said Stack, who suffered no brain damage. “And I like it here — it’s more low-key than L.A.”
Michael Bethune, a 37-year-old with a penchant for art, was in a serious car accident in 1994 that left his chances of survival at 5 percent. His family was told he would never speak, write or understand language.
They were wrong. Bethune, still in a wheelchair, frequently draws, writes and reads and has a lot to say. He takes care of many of his own physical needs and has a smile that can melt hearts.
Bethune’s room is filled with photos, books and many of his paintings. He was a cosmetologist specializing in hair before his accident left him in a wheelchair with brain damage.
Bethune said he often visits his mother, who also lives in Scotts Valley, but he likes the comfort of his own place.
“I like living here, because of I get to have my own freedom. I don’t have to hear the hounds barking at my mom’s house,” Bethune said. “I’m also very well taken care of and live with friends.”