From 1971 to Today
It began with a song and a promise, as the Age of Aquarius ushered in a new decade of the 1970s. The song talked about a journey and a vision.
"Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes.
Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind,
Had to get away to see what we could find.
Hope the days that lie ahead Bring us back to where they've led.
Listen not to what's been said to you.
Don't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express?"
©1969 Siquomb Music, Inc.
Crosby, Stills & Nash
Marrakech really began with a young woman named Valerie Chain. Susan Waisbran, a Yale undergraduate who later became one of the two Founders of Marrakech, Inc., met Valerie through Yale Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the New Haven Regional Center, which has long since closed. Susan’s experiences with Valerie and many of the other women there inspired her to want to develop a more innovative community for them.
Francis (Francie) Brody, also an undergraduate at Yale during this time, was interested in the developmental disability field, and through her friendship with Susan, came to know Valerie and her friends well. Both Susan and Francie recognized the many capabilities of these women and wanted them to have the opportunity to move toward independence. This was what led them to the revolutionary idea to build a halfway house specifically for women with intellectual disabilities.
At the time, there were no halfway houses in Connecticut for this population. The New Haven Regional Center had been trying to begin a group home for five years, however, administrative problems and a lack of funds thwarted their attempts. But the movement away from institutionalization had already taken hold philosophically.
Susan and Francie may have been young and idealistic, but they were unencumbered by any foreknowledge of the frustration and bureaucracy they would be facing. They thought it was simple: New Haven needed a halfway house, and they would start one. With the guidance of the Regional Center staff and Dr. Seymour Sarason of the Yale Psycho-Educational Clinic, they did just that. The Marrakech House opened as a summer pilot program on June 20, 1971, after three months of careful preparation. Eight young women, including Valerie, spent the summer in a sublet, supervised apartment on Crown Street in New Haven.
"Dr. Sarason proved to be our staunchest ally and yet our most critical observer," said Susan. "He visited the Marrakech House, attended meetings with parents, the Board of Directors, and community agencies. He wrote critical letters of support; he listened to our smallest problems, and he helped immeasurably whenever we needed him." Others from Yale and New Haven volunteered in various capacities. "We always relied on volunteers," said Francie. Walter Wagoner of the New Haven Legal Assistance helped them incorporate as a tax-exempt nonprofit corporation. Others helped them develop and deliver programs, apply for grants, and plan for new houses. Yet, she admitted, "I don't think Susan and I had the vision of Marrakech's future. We were very present tense, busy proving it could be done." After that first summer, planning for implementation of Phase II of Marrakech began. Various apartments were rented, beginning in the fall of 1971. Soon after, Marrakech, Inc. started receiving funding by the State Department of Social Services and the Department of Developmental Disabilities (formerly the Department of Mental Retardation).
Marrakech's first purchased home was on Sherman Avenue. It was sold in 1985 and three other homes were leased further expanding the residential options for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It was also during this time that the organization began to develop employment and community programs for people with developmental disabilities as well as employment programs for those with psychiatric disabilities funded by the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS).
In the 90’s, Marrakech’s work with DMHAS continued to grow when the organization became part of a collaborative effort that continues today to provide outreach services to people who are homeless and in need of clinical mental health treatment. It was also during this time that the DDS community and employment programs expanded to new areas, increasing the organization’s capacity to support people in a variety of settings, which included a focus on furthering its work with individuals with autism in its specialized day programs that was more fully realized in the early part of the next decade.
Deriving from Marrakech’s own need to hire qualified talent to work in their ever-expanding network of services, the early 90s also brought about the development of the Academy for Human Service Training program. This innovative occupational skills training program would eventually expand to three physical locations in the state along with a virtual classroom option and train over 1,000 participants to date for entry-level careers in the human service field.
DMHAS-funded collaborations continued in the early 2000s, when Marrakech, along with Easter Seals Goodwill Industries of New Haven (now Goodwill of Southern New England) and APT Foundation, opened the Taking Initiative Center (TIC). The TIC is a drop-in center for people who are currently using substances, or who are pre-contemplative to recovery services, many of whom are also homeless or at risk of being homeless. Later in 2006, Marrakech was awarded another contract with DMHAS to provide a transitional living program for young adults aged 18-26. Marrakech works closely with the Young Adult Services (YAS) clinical team at the Connecticut Mental Health Center and a vocational team to provide around the clock, comprehensive independent living programs for these young adults.
The 2000s also brought significant program and service expansion into areas that were new for Marrakech. This included several contracts with the Housing Authority of the City of New Haven to provide transitional case management and family enrichment services to residents as their housing projects underwent major revitalizations. It is during this time that Marrakech also began providing case management services through the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to youth transitioning from foster care to their own apartments for the first time. This was followed by additional DCF contracts, including a first the New Haven and then the Waterbury Work to Learn Centers, which provide vocational training, life skills development, financial literacy, recreation, and basic education support to youth in foster care as they prepare to go off to college and adulthood.
Marrakech continues to grow and innovate today. A Quality-of-Life department ensures fun and enriching activities are offered year-round to people we support as well as those in the greater community. The organization opened the first supported living site fully staffed with ASL-fluent employees for individuals with intellectual disabilities who are also deaf or hard of hearing. And East Street Arts, a social enterprise of Marrakech that expanded the existing chair caning studio and provides art as a career path, is an award-winning, thriving business and artisan hub in New Haven and known throughout the state.
One of Marrakech’s goals has always been to help each person achieve a level of independence that would allow them to become valued members of the communities in which they live and work. Many years ago, the Founders of Marrakech initially set out for the pilot to achieve normalization for the women who lived in the first halfway house. Susan said, "Normalization does not mean merely adjusting to society's norms. It means educating the community to expand its definition of 'normal.'" Yet, after the first summer of Marrakech, she added, "We never really wanted normalization. We wanted something better.” To Susan's and Francie's goals, Marrakech has remained true.
This reflects the values upon which this organization is founded, and the core values that still exist today: person-centeredness, diversity & inclusion, customer service, and integrity. While many years have passed since the founding of Marrakech, the ideals of the Founders and their simple spirit of doing what needed to be done lives on.