PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Every two weeks during the winter, young women from a home near the edge of Platteville arrange their wares at the community farmers market.
On a recent Saturday, they lined their booth with Valentine’s Day signs embossed with glittery lettering, a watering can painted in blue and orange — the local university’s colors — and two rows of sweet banana bread and dark cocoa brownies.
The residents from the Aloha Communities Platteville House, a home for four adults living with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, craft all week, then present their work and themselves to the public.
The exercise, intended to instill a sense of self-worth and offer a lesson in finance, also aims to foster a connection between the city’s recent arrivals and long-time residents.
“I love to socialize with people,” said resident Angelique Coffman, 26. “I’m always trying to find ways to get out as much as I can.”
FASD includes a cluster of effects in children born to mothers who consumed alcohol during pregnancy, including problems with mood, coordination, impulse control, speech and learning.
The condition affects about 1% to 5% of the population, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Having lived in Platteville for more than two years, residents have integrated into the community, but the COVID-19 pandemic has placed new limits on their mobility.
The challenges have taught them to cope with adversity and broadened their understanding of being a good neighbor, they said.
“If you’re sick, you shouldn’t be out in the community,” said Amanda Mohawk, 24. “It can affect so many people around you. … I didn’t understand that before.”
Aloha Communities Platteville House opened in 2018 and is located northwest of Platteville. The spacious residence is owned by the nonprofit FASD Communities, of Honolulu, Hawaii.
The organization was started by a network of parents who adopted children with FASD.
“The parents have indicated this to be (the women’s) ‘forever home,’” said Gigi Davidson, FASD Communities co-founder and director.
The four residents are supervised 24 hours per day by a total of 16 staff members, who keep watch to ensure their safety and assist them with skill-building activities.
The program centers around a farming operation — replete with a garden, rabbits and chickens — and the women work or volunteer in Platteville.
Mohawk assists at Platteville Thrift Shop, sorting items, bagging and running the cash register.
“She’s a real good help,” said staff member Debbie Hamm. “We give her a variety of things to do.”
Coffman and another resident volunteered at a farm but had to stop when the pandemic struck. Aloha residents cut back on city excursions, an adjustment made bearable by staff encouragement.
“We’ve had to come up with more creative activities we can do at home,” said House Manager Jeanette Sannito. “I think they’ve come so far.”
Coffman misses the swing dancing classes she participated in at University of Wisconsin-Platteville and holiday visits with her family in Toledo, Ohio.
“For me, this has been very stressful,” she said.
The residents are limited to one hour of screen time per day, so they have planned bingo and spa nights. Over the summer, they organized volleyball matches, hiked and tubed on the Mississippi River.
Living in a rural area also has provided the women with outdoor space. They can walk the property when they need to destress.
“It gives me room to go out and scream if I need to,” Mohawk said.
Davidson said the pandemic has not come without concerns.
Recently, most of the residents and staff received COVID-19 vaccinations, but she fears the consequences of an infection at the home, which has not occurred to date.
Should a resident require hospitalization and not be permitted to remain in the presence of an Aloha staff person, the situation could distress them.
“I pray that doesn’t happen,” Davidson said.
She also looks at the long-term outlook for the FASD community.
Following reports of increased substance use and declines in mental health last summer, stemming from isolation and job loss, Davidson expects to see more children born with FASD.
She is spearheading an effort to raise awareness of the condition through the production of a documentary, the filming of which the residents joined.
Behind her face mask, Coffman said the pandemic has heightened her awareness of the importance of safety.
“If something were to happen, if not to me, to one of my housemates or staff, it would hurt me,” she said. “The people around me, I love them very much and all I want for them is just to be happy.”