The story of the Michael Lisnow Respite Center is remarkable enough in that it demonstrates a mother’s unwavering love and support for her son, and the unyielding commitment of two best friends to make a difference in the lives of others. But it is so much more than that.
Indeed, this isn’t just the story of Sharon Lisnow and her son Michael, who was born 16 weeks early weighing just over a pound and lived his far-too-brief life challenged by myriad disabilities. This is Hopkinton’s story, a tale of unrelenting support by a community for a cause greater than any one person. It is a story of love, indomitable human spirit and an outpouring of help to make a dream become reality — and to cement a legacy that will last many lifetimes.
Sharon Lisnow and Mary McQueeney, friends of more than 30 years who met when their two children went to the same school — McQueeney taught and Lisnow volunteered — are the founding directors of the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center, named after Lisnow’s son. The facility, which offers programs for families and their children living with disabilities, ages birth and up, celebrated 25 years this spring. That so much time has passed since the building opened in 1997 is a difficult concept to grasp.
“It’s really hard to believe it’s been 25 years,” Lisnow said. “Sometimes it feels like it’s been a lot less, especially with COVID interrupting us, and sometimes it feels a lot longer. I just have so much gratitude for all the people who have come with us.”
Beginnings of a dream
It all started when Lisnow and McQueeney, seeing the challenges Lisnow’s family faced caring for Michael around the clock while trying to balance all of life’s other demands, conceived the idea of a place where families could take their loved ones who deal with physical and cognitive disabilities.
“She was exhausted,” McQueeney said of her friend, who by her own admission wasn’t what someone might consider “employable,” given she would have to, at any given moment, be gone for days or weeks at a time if Michael was hospitalized or needed care. “We had the idea of why don’t we open a place for people going through something similar?
It started off well enough, with the two women obtaining the former hospitality house at 112 Main Street for $1 from the Archdiocese of Boston. Their intention was to renovate the building into a respite center. Soon enough, however, the town building inspector informed them the building needed to be demolished. Not only that, but police told them they’d have to have the property fenced in and filled that night. After all, McQueeney said, they couldn’t just leave a big hole right off Main Street.
That’s where the community came in. Someone told them to reach out to Jim Pyne, whom Lisnow calls “our guardian angel.” Now retired, Pyne at the time owned Pyne Sand & Stone. They got in touch with him and he sprang into action. As it turns out, the project was personal for Pyne as well.
“We filled it in to make it safe,” he recalled. “They told us about their dream. Our oldest daughter is totally disabled. … We had a feel for what people go through in that situation.
“It touched me,” Pyne continued. “Sharon was the mother of an incredibly disabled son. Mary was a special needs teacher. Then they hatched this dream. We all have dreams and ideas and stuff like that, but they stuck with it. When that house had to be torn down, they had to start from scratch.”
During that time, Michael grew increasingly sick, and Lisnow and McQueeney were often not available to oversee the project. Much of it, they acknowledged, had to be handled by others. The generosity, they said, was incredible.
There was Pyne stepping up and securing the property and working for three years on the project for nary a dime. There was Hopkinton Lumber, which Lisnow said provided the first $25,000 worth of lumber. And then there was McIntyre Loam, a company that one day filled in the front yard with mulch and bushes while Lisnow and McQueeney were at lunch.
Even if the project didn’t completely meet their original design, the women had no complaints.
“We did not want a white house,” McQueeney said. “Jim calls up and says, ‘Great news. I got your vinyl siding for free.’ I said, ‘What color?’ He said, ‘White.’ I said, ‘OK, we’re going to be a white house.’
“We wanted a gray room,” she continued. “We got a call, free shingles, brown. ‘We’ll take it!’ ”
When they needed plumbing, they met the owner of Republic Plumbing Supply in Framingham.
“He said, ‘You go in the back room, you can have whatever you want. The only problem is none of your toilets are going to match,’ ” McQueeney recalled. “We said, ‘We can live with that.’ ”
Lisnow and McQueeney — and Michael, of course — became quite the local celebrities.
“Everybody got the behind the project,” Lisnow said. “A lot of people knew Michael. Up at Town Hall they used to call us the two girls and the little guy.”
Michael passed away at the age of 10 in 1996, a year before the Respite Center opened. His legacy, however, lives on, and the efforts of all those involved in bringing Lisnow and McQueeney’s dream to life have paid off in a huge way.
Home away from home
What they created wasn’t a clinical facility with a sterile feel, but a home. You feel it the moment you walk through the front door and see so many curious, smiling faces turn toward you. You hear it in their laughter and chatter, and you see it in the warm interaction between staff — currently numbering 42 — and attendees. What’s more, much of the staff is comprised of friends or relatives of those who previously worked there, people who know someone receiving services through the Respite Center, or local high school grads who got to know the program as volunteers.
The 8,000-square-foot building breathes community. Scratch that, it breathes family.
McQueeney’s daughter Maria, who spent so much time as a child with her mother at the Respite Center, now runs an adult day program in Colorado. She will be returning in July to work there.
Jimmy DeCenzo works at the Respite Center weekdays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. He has been there for five years, and came by way of his father, whose sister, Jimmy’s Aunt Karen, is a member of the day program. That program serves individuals 22 and older, and they reside in one of four group homes operated by the Respite Center in town.
DeCenzo had a simple answer when asked what he gets from working at the center, saying, “I feel like, honestly, it gives me a purpose.”
That is precisely what Lisnow and McQueeney hoped for: to build a place that helps give purpose, while providing parents a break — a respite, if you will, something Lisnow is all too familiar with. That is exactly what the birth-to-3 program offers. Operating out of the top floor, it allows parents to drop off their kids to go to work or catch some much-needed sleep. It is staffed by two nurses, a physical therapist and one other employee.
Kids in that program, Lisnow said, “are a child first, the disability is second.” They get fed and their medications are provided, but they do activities and crafts just as they would in any other preschool program.
“These parents,” McQueeney said, “they come in and you can tell they’re tired and kind of sad. They come back, they get their child, they’re smiling, their little guys are happy.”
The first floor of the Respite Center features a living room, office space, kitchen and fireplace.
The finished basement is largely used for programming space, with an art room, recreational room and media center. Dell EMC Corp. donated several pieces of exercise equipment, such as stationary bikes, which are used during cycling classes. Jazzercise also is done in that space, while Jazzercise Westborough Fitness Studio allows the Respite Center use of its studio, free of charge. The local YMCA hosts participants as well.
While the birth-to-3 and adult day programs are in action now, the after-school program for the in-between ages as well as the overnight respite center have yet to return during COVID.
“Overnight is really hard because it’s shared bedrooms and it rotates. There are a lot more regulations around that,” Lisnow said. “That’s one program that’s really missing right now. The agencies that do overnight respite, I don’t know one that has started up again. We just got adult day open.”
But, Lisnow said, the programs will come back.
The Respite Center operates largely on fundraising and three state contracts. Its largest fundraiser is the Boston Marathon, with the Respite Center becoming involved in its first year open, 1997, when it hosted wheelchair participants. The following year, the Respite Center fielded its first team of five runners, which raised $42,000. In 1999, both Lisnow and McQueeney ran the Boston Marathon, something they would do for six years.
While she didn’t want to give a total, Lisnow said the Marathon is the Respite Center’s biggest fundraiser and brings in “a lot of money.”
And then there’s the community that continues to help. Dell EMC supports the Marathon team and also sends employees on a regular basis to help with various projects.
Hopkinton High School is a big booster as well, something Lisnow and McQueeney made a priority, with the hope of instilling a spirit of giving back and helping others. The HHS football team is a big presence at the annual Michael’s Run, a 5K race being held this year on Oct. 15.
“The football players come in, they’re pushing our guys up the hill in wheelchairs and running with them,” McQueeney said. “It’s a great sight.”
The Hopkinton Running Club handles registration for the event.
The Respite Center also provides an opportunity for those who are part of a group, such as Honor Society or CCD, that requires community service. Some of those individuals, Lisnow said, go on to become employees at the Respite Center.
The facility also hosts students from Elmwood Elementary School who tour the building and then interact with program participants.
Other community partners help out as well. The Respite Center has a grant from the Cummings Foundation for a partnership with the Hopkinton Center for the Arts, which allows the facility to run classes there every year. RE/MAX has been a huge help, Lisnow said, noting the company helped facilitate the purchases of the four group homes, which are on Church Street, Ash Street, Grove Street and Marshall Avenue. She said the company then donated 100 percent of the commission back to the Respite Center to allow for renovation of the houses.
It’s that community spirit, the pulling together of folks from just about all parts of Hopkinton, that really got to Pyne, who has lived in town almost 80 years.
“It’s the only place I ever lived,” he said. “I used to watch the generation ahead of me do the projects around the town just to volunteer their time. Over time, that went away. Life has changed. But the restoration, or the creation, of the Respite Center really restored my faith in people’s willingness to participate in something good.”
Of the Respite Center itself, Pyne said, “You walk in there and you feel love all over the place. You see laughter and smiles. As a parent, you know how near and dear to your heart they are. You’re conscious of who it is you’re going put in charge of caring for your children.”
When told that this reporter felt like a better person having been inside the building and meeting the people there, Pyne said, “To have you say that means it’s working very well. I suspect most people that enter through those doors feel just as you did when they leave.”
Lisnow and McQueeney wouldn’t want it any other way.
“That’s what it is. It’s magic,” Lisnow said. “This is theirs, not ours. We didn’t open in Hopkinton. This is Hopkinton.”
Center’s namesake ‘was our teacher’
Before she and her best friend opened the Respite Center in her son’s name — a facility that has gone on to help countless families and individuals living with disabilities — Sharon Lisnow first had to learn how to live with it herself.
Her son Michael was born 16 weeks early with severe disabilities, weighing in at just over 1 pound and not quite reaching 1 foot in length. He was the second child for Lisnow and her husband. The first child also was born prematurely and sadly did not survive, dying a year before Michael was born.
Michael and his family faced challenges, to be sure, but Lisnow said he also possessed a great love in him. There was, she said, a light that touched all those around him. He brought it with him when he attended public school, where Sharon volunteered.
The earliest years, she conceded, were the most difficult.
“The first years were hard years,” she said. “Birth to 3 years old are really hard for parents. You’re learning what disabilities your child has, where their limitations will be, where they won’t be. So they’re hard years.”
“But,” she continued, “also I have to say Michael was just … a love. His personality. There wasn’t a day I wished he wasn’t here. He was just a remarkable young man.”
Michael lived 10 years, long enough to see his mother and her best friend, Mary McQueeney, plant the seed for what would become the Michael Lisnow Respite Center. Lisnow remembers bringing her son in his stroller to the former hospitality center she and McQueeney had purchased for $1 with the hope of rehabbing it into a respite facility. While she was talking with someone, she turned and saw that Michael’s stroller had rolled down the slanted hallway.
As fate would have it, that building ended up having to be torn down, the Respite Center having to be built entirely from scratch. Michael ended up passing in 1996, a year before that new building would open. His spirit, however, has never faded.
“Somebody asked me, when he was 3 or 4 years old, if I would change Michael,” Lisnow recalled. “There was a time in my life when I would have said yes. I actually said no, I wouldn’t. That’s who he was. If you took all that he was away, it wasn’t him anymore.
“I was really fortunate. He enhanced my life more than anything else I’ve ever experienced or done. He was our teacher.”
Exemplary article. Congratulations to 25 years making a mission come to fruition and continues forward. Beautiful unfolding, community support. My sister Pam texted Special Education teacher is a local volunteer. I am honored to learn the humble beginnings and now.
Edit typo : My sister Pam a volunteer at Respite Center is a retired Special Education teacher.