Joe and Natalie LaHood are a married couple in Maryland who have opened a daycare for young kids with disabilities in their home. Here’s the story of why they took this extraordinary step in their life together, and how we might learn from them.
Wayne Evans wants you to know that his spirited 15 year-old son, Wyatt, who loves to listen to Stevie Wonder and to read, especially books with talking animals; whose favorite color is blue; who is nonverbal and wheelchair-bound with cerebral palsy; who has faced seizures and breathing problems and has to eat every meal through a tube in his nose — Wayne wants you to know that Wyatt is tremendously, unbelievably brave.
“He’s probably one of the bravest people I’ve ever met in my life,” Wayne says. “I think for somebody who is very much acquainted with pain, frustration, and loss, he continues to be one of the happiest people I know. He goes out into the world every day — can’t walk, can’t talk — having to trust people. And he does.”
In 2007, Wayne and his wife Robin went to the hospital for Wyatt’s birth. There were unanticipated challenges with the delivery. Wyatt went without oxygen for 15 minutes and could’ve — should’ve — died that first day. A doctor revived him, saved him, but Wyatt would never be the able-bodied child his parents had been expecting.
Wayne remembers hardly sleeping at all that first year, staying up all night to watch Wyatt, even when it was Robin’s shift, terrified their son might not make it through the night. “If you’re not careful, your life is really about everything you’ve lost. Watching my buddies play with their sons and daughters, all that was taken from me,” Wayne says. “You can become very insular, you can become kind of shut in, and you live in survival mode.”
Amid the Evans family’s extraordinary challenges throughout Wyatt’s life, there has been abundant grace, Wayne says. And they found one life-changing source of that grace about five years ago, when they met Joe and Natalie LaHood. The LaHoods, a married couple with four young kids of their own, have transformed their home in Hyattsville, Maryland, into a daycare for school-aged children with developmental disabilities called St. Joseph’s House.
“The good Lord comes along and sends people like the LaHoods, who let you know that life is wonderful,” Wayne says. “It’s just your configuration of ‘wonderful’ is different. And that’s what I’ve learned from our time at St. Joseph’s House.
As far back as Joe LaHood can remember, there were young people with developmental disabilities at his home.
His mother, Cubby, had wanted to stay home with Joe when he was born, and she had experience working with kids with disabilities. So, she started caring for one child at their house in Silver Spring, Maryland, usually before or after school to help out the parents. Word spread. Soon, there were four, six, eight kids in the house. The work officially began in 1983.
Cubby and her husband, Dan LaHood, named the community St. Joseph’s House, after the quiet, steady caretaker who welcomed the infant Jesus. “The kids were my family,” Joe remembers. “They were my siblings. They were there when I got home from school. They were there when I was eating breakfast in the morning.” It wasn’t until Joe was in high school that he realized his childhood had been far from the norm.
For her work, Cubby was named a “Washingtonian of the Year” by Washingtonian Magazine in 1995. She and Dan, who left his career in the healthcare industry to join Cubby in the work full time, passed on the values of radical inclusion and hospitality to their own children, Joe and his two siblings.
Sadly, Cubby died of ovarian cancer in 2015. The family knew they wanted the work to continue somehow, but they didn’t have a long-term plan. Joe and Natalie were dating at the time of Cubby’s death, and were engaged a few months later. One of the big reasons they had initially hit it off was because Natalie shared Joe’s passion for accompanying individuals with developmental disabilities. She had spent time abroad serving in a home that was a lot like St. Joseph’s House and struggled to explain her experience to most people, until she met Joe. “We had this conversation — ‘You get me, our hearts are in the same place and we want the same thing,’” Natalie remembers. “Those conversations just naturally led to, ‘This is what we want in life and this is what we would want for our family.’”
So they started running St. Joseph’s House themselves, first at Joe’s childhood home. This past summer, after some renovations at their own house, Joe and Natalie moved the work there. Natalie is the executive director; Joe is a schoolteacher who is out of the house during the academic year. Their busiest time is the summer, when they run nine weeks of all-day camp full of art projects, exercise, education, and field trips. During the school year, they offer after-school care and “respite” time for parents on occasional weekends.
St. Joseph’s House and the LaHoods’ home are conterminous — the work doesn’t happen in an adjacent building or a restricted part of the house. Everyone eats together at the family dining table; they change diapers for kids who need that support in their guest room.
“The ministry is such an extension of the family and running it out of the home is just intrinsic to the life of St. Joseph’s House,” Natalie says. “We have the flexibility to say [to the families we serve], ‘Hey, you’ve got crazy medical appointments today and you need to drop your son off early? Great. We’re here. It’s our house. Or you’re stuck in traffic? You don’t need another reason to be stressed in your life. Go slowly. We’re here. He’s hanging out while we’re cooking dinner.”
This setup gives St. Joseph’s House a simple, communal, familial atmosphere. “It’s not a big, fancy, flashy center,” Natalie says. “The mission is to live these day-to-day moments with these kids faithfully and lovingly.”
One story that illustrates this mission particularly well was this week of camp last summer when everyone wanted to play dress-up for some unknown reason — it was just one of those ideas that took off that you see when kids play creatively together.
The kids collaborated to make sure everyone could have a costume, fitting the various dress-up items over and around wheelchairs. One little girl who typically uses a walker wanted to be a dinosaur. Natalie remembers, tickled, how the girl crawled around in her costume trying to help everyone else get outfitted, and how the whole crew of kids was working together to make sure everyone could be part of their play. “The point was just to get everyone dressed up. They got there and everyone just looked at each other like, Okay, now what?” Natalie says. “It was the journey.”
Kids like Wyatt Evans love their time at St. Joseph’s House — Wyatt sometimes pipes up like a helicoptered teenager if he feels like his parents are hanging out too long, chatting with Joe and Natalie when they drop him off — but Joe and Natalie share that it can be difficult to measure tangible results when writing reports for potential funders. “It’s hard to write on the outcomes like ‘Played Sorry! 35 times in a row,’ something like that,” Joe says. “We were together, doing what the kids wanted to do and what brought us to a place of love. And that can be a hard thing to describe in bullet points.”
Wayne Evans marvels at what the LaHoods are striving to do, saying that Joe and Natalie radiate with a certain energy he doesn’t quite know how to describe. “One of the things I’ve always liked about St Joseph’s House is that it’s a place where my child has a community. He’s not just warehoused,” Wayne says. “He’s embraced and cherished and cultivated, and it’s been that way as long as we’ve been there.”
St. Josephs’ House extends like a web with the home at the center, knitting together the families of the program participants and volunteers from the local community. For instance, a niece of one of the first young people who attended St. Joseph’s House decades ago helped run the camp this summer. Wayne has found inspiration in other parents connected to the house. He tells the story of seeing another father carrying his own young-adult son. “Oh, sir, you still pick him up?” Wayne remembers asking. And the father’s answer stopped Wayne in his tracks: “I’m still his father.” Wayne thought to himself, “I better start working out… Thank you for keeping the bar high, sir.”
The connections between the St. Joseph’s House families are crucial because they can so often feel alone in their struggles, as Wayne and Robin Evans did in Wyatt’s earliest years. “To have a community for these kids and families who often have very little sense of community or a challenging sense of community, to have this be a place for them, that is our end, that’s our goal,” Joe says. “We want to build a community that is safe and loving for them and their families and to expand that community to the greater world. And the only way to do that is personal.”