A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEABIRD
Seabird Enterprises began in 1983 from a humble beginning at the old YWCA in Groton with a staff of four and a grant of $25,000 from the Connecticut Disabilities Council. In the next 34 years, Seabird has grown to a staff of approximately seventy-five with a budget of more than five million. The organization was formed by a group of parents who wanted better programs for children with disabilities than what the local school systems were then offering. A committee was formed to visit various vocational training sites for special need’s students throughout Connecticut. A report of this information was presented at the March 1981 meeting of the Board of Directors of the Fitch Vocational Advisory Council. The report emphasized the need for the development of pride, dignity and self-esteem for the high school student with disabilities. The Advisory Council became so enthusiastic about such a program in Groton that a proposal was developed. This proposal was originally named “Chocolate Chip.” Its name was later changed to the “Cookie Factory” since one of the skills to be developed would be the baking and selling of cookies.
Arthur Gangell, President of the Advisory Council and member of the Groton Board of Education, presented the proposed program to the School Board in March 1981 and a committee was formed to study the proposal. The first site proposed for the Cookie Factory was the historic Jabez Smith House in Groton and bids were obtained for its renovation. At this point, politics, lack of funding and the lack of vision by the citizens of the Town of Groton brought the proposal to a standstill.
Although the efforts of the Advisory Council did not result in the baking of cookies, it was a beginning. For the first time, the community became aware of the need for better vocational programs for the high school student with special needs. Interestingly, Seabird did eventually receive permission to use the Jabez Smith House as its office.
Some members of the group decided to form their own organization and H. Douglas Neumann was hired as the first Executive Director. Doug worked tirelessly to obtain funding and hire staff as programs were developed that provided greater opportunities for individuals. Doug served as Director for 31 years until his retirement in 2014. Under his direction, Seabird grew from a program of ten individuals with disabilities to more than two hundred and fifty participants. The Board of Directors has always believed that the development of small businesses, community integration, respect for the preferences of the individual and the desires of the participants’ parents were the goals of the organization. Because of this philosophy, Seabird’s Board of Directors approved the purchases of the horse farm in Montville in February 1989, the Post Road Bakery later called Candy’s Cozy Kitchen in New London in November 1994, Puffins Restaurant in Groton in March 1995, Crocker Hill Bakery & Greenhouse in Franklin in April 1997, Cottage Gardens Bakery & Greenhouse in Colchester in April 2006 and The Victorian in Plainfield in July 2008. Although over time Seabird sold Candy’s Cozy Kitchen and Crocker Hill, it continues to operate the other businesses to this day. Seabird also began leasing the Village Bakery in May 2010. From the beginning, the Board recognized the need to provide programs for high school students with disabilities so that they would not graduate from high school without the skills needed to enter the world of work. Seabird continues to offer mobile cleaning and landscaping services in addition to operating three greenhouses, an equine Therapeutic Riding Center, three bakeries and three restaurants. In addition, Seabird gives support to 25 individuals who are now employed at various area businesses as well as serving more than 65 individuals in their retirement years.
Today, Lori Neumann serves as the Executive Director of Seabird, following in her father’s footsteps. Together with Program Director John Lavoie, who also has over 20 years here, they continue to support and carry on with the mission of Seabird, maintaining programs and employing staff who ensure that every individual has the right to choose their life’s direction with dignity and self-respect.