Opening this fall in Pawtucket’s Hope Artiste Village, LUNA Community Care's autistic and neurodivergent founders take a uniquely collaborative approach to mental health. “We want to be affordable and accessible to everybody in ways that therapy may not be,” says licensed mental health counselor Casey Gallagher, who co-founded the cooperative for disabled workers in 2020 with Tara Boulais, a peer recovery specialist and community health worker.
The community-oriented group provides a space for neurodivergent youth and adults to support, learn from, and celebrate one another through peer-led drop-in groups and other programming. Gallagher notes that over 30 percent of people in the United States are neurodivergent, which encompasses – but is not limited to – ADHD, autism, anxiety, and PTSD. However, in their work as a mental health counselor, Gallagher noticed a lack of wellness services, especially peer groups, for neurodivergent individuals in Rhode Island.
This reality is what led Gallagher to conceive the idea for LUNA. “I really believe in lived experience and identity-based groups, so that was where I started,” Gallagher says, noting that existing clinical groups are often led by people who don’t share the lived experiences of those attending the groups.
Though Gallagher and Boulais originally envisioned the cooperative offering both clinical and peer support, they ultimately decided to focus exclusively on the latter, welcoming both those with clinical and self diagnoses.
LUNA plans to offer numerous peer counseling groups both in person and virtually, including a gender and neurodivergent group and a Jewish and neurodivergent group. There will also be several rotating clubs, such as a disability justice book club, art club, and foraging and outdoor mindfulness club. A gender-affirming virtual workshop that took place earlier this year run by worker-owner Sy Bedrick was featured in Allure.
Collaborating with other local organizations, LUNA will also offer events and training programs to businesses and professionals on creating more disability-inclusive environments and support for neurodivergent individuals.
As the first cooperative for disabled workers in the country, LUNA is forging a path in developing a business model, seeking ways to ensure all employees – including recipients of disability income – are paid equitably. Restrictions imposed on supplemental security income (SSI) make this difficult, as recipients don’t qualify for benefits if they possess more than $2,000 at any given time, effectively making it impossible for SSI recipients to build savings.
LUNA has been developing ways to get around these policies in order to pay cooperative member-owners for their work. With two member-owners on SSI and two not, Gallagher explains, the group has collaborated to ensure that needs of every member are met.
“We’re trying to find ways to work with individuals who are disabled and not on disability who need to make money in order to survive as well as people who are on disability who have a lot of barriers in order to survive in this world,” says Gallagher. “We want to make sure that they’re also receiving the same funds that everybody else does, but we’re not impacting the benefits that they receive through the state.
This means offering stipends or paying into retirement accounts, which does not impact disability income. LUNA also wants to ensure every worker is paid $30 an hour regardless of how they’re collecting their income.
“We’re really pioneering this,” explains Gallagher. “We’re trying to develop it in a way that makes sure everything we’re doing is legal and that we’re filing our taxes right. That’s what’s taking us a lot longer because there’s not a lot of people with expertise on this.” Not even benefits counselors in the state, they add, have a lot of know-how on these practices because of how new the business model is.
Though LUNA is in many ways the first of its kind, its team hopes they can be a model for similar organizations and cooperatives in the future, both in peer-support for neurodivergent individuals and setting a precedence for paying disabled workers equitably.
To learn more about LUNA Care Community’s services, visit LUNACommunityCare.org, or find their fundraiser for programming at GiveButter.com/LunaCommunityCare#
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