Story and photo By Sandra J. Pennecke
Elena Montello used to attend the Stockley Gardens Arts Festival each year with her three small children in tow. Now, more than 20 years later, and with her children grown, she is the woman behind it.
“It used to be on Mother’s Day,” Montello said. “I always thought how I’d love to be part of something like this.”
Montello got her wish when an opening occurred at Hope House Foundation for a part-time development assistant. Before long she was the development coordinator and today, she holds the title of development director.
The Northern New Jersey native earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Virginia Wesleyan College in 1983 and planted her roots in Hampton Roads permanently the following year.
“I get more from the individuals we support than I could ever give to them,” Montello said.
The roots of the organization she holds near and dear to her heart date back to 1964, when a group of Norfolk parents wanted an alternative to institutional-style living for their adult children with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
The nonprofit is the only organization in Virginia that supports adults with those disabilities exclusively in their own homes. It currently supports 121 people, and there are approximately 6,000 on the state’s waiting list for Medicaid waivers to receive services.
According to the foundation’s website, www.hope-house.org, services – which are available 24 hours, seven days a week – include assistance with household maintenance, budgeting, cooking, transportation, medical issues, personal care and hygiene, and recreation. Everything is aimed at helping clients live full and independent lives.
That’s where the funding comes into play. Despite having the seventh per capita household income in the U.S., Virginia ranks 47th out of the 50 states in community-based funding for people with disabilities.
The Stockley Gardens Arts Festival, which was renamed in 1984 from the Ghent Arts Festival when Hope House Foundation took it over, is the foundation’s major fundraiser. It raises approximately $80,000 per year.
Held the third week in May and the third week in October, the festival has grown from 20 artists to 145. While most are local, there are some from around the world, including one artist from Israel. This year marks its 29th anniversary.
“We built it, and everyone loves it because it’s got a great community feel,” Montello said. “I absolutely love doing this event; it’s one of my favorite parts of my position.”
Aside from the fundraising aspect, Montello stressed the community awareness that comes from the event.
“It’s a great opportunity for the community to embrace their neighbors, regardless of whether they have a disability or not,” she said. “It helps to break down barriers for people who may not understand.”
Montello said that Hope House is not a cookie-cutter organization, and the foundation prides itself on living its mission.
“We don’t just talk the talk, we walk the walk,” she said.
And so does Montello.
Last summer, she received the Fiorello H. La Guardia Award from the Sons of Italy Italian American Club of Virginia Beach and also an alumni service award from her alma mater.
“My dad always told me anything worth having is worth working for,” Montello said of her father, Patsy Montello, who passed away two months ago. “I wonder where they all would be if we weren’t here, and I feel really good when I lay my head on my pillow at night.”