Twenty-four-year-old, multiply disabled Jonathan “Jon” Yard is one of the many volunteers, some disabled and others not, who have kept the Bordentown store Gail Force Winds in business since it opened in October 2017. The store operates under “Yard” Work and More, a nonprofit covering community-based recreation, leisure, employment, and housing, created by Betsy Yard to fulfill the needs of Jon, who has Kabuki syndrome, autism and epilepsy and is nonverbal.
“As Jon was aging up and becoming a teenager, I wanted him to live like any other teenager,” Betsy says. “He’s had some really astounding people who have worked with him, as far as education, and I was thinking what is his future going to be?”
Jon, who graduated from Burlington Township High School in 2016, doesn’t speak but after years of ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) and speech therapy, he has good receptive language, does some signing, and uses an augmentative communication device to ask questions, order from menus, and, Betsy says, “sometimes he surprises us and says things that are pretty funny. He was listening to what we were saying and ad libs.”
Today he volunteers at Gail Force Winds and works for Hilton—a big plus because, Betsy says, “If you graduate and have a disability, 80 percent of people do not get a job
But as his mother and advocate, Betsy was not going to see her son unemployed. Not only did she make sure he got an appropriate public school education, but a decade ago she created the model for what would become a nonprofit to help him along his path. “I really believe in community inclusion and employment of people with disabilities and the opportunity to live like everyone else, so I created this little business formulated around what he liked to do.”
The shop offers vintage and handmade items. Both the artists and the store’s volunteers include people with disabilities—they can be blind, deaf, have traumatic brain injury, or be developmentally disabled—and people with no disabilities. In the shop artists from Bordentown and its environs sell their work, which includes handmade jewelry, knits, leather masks, mosaics, dishes, frames, and more.
“The shop is a wonderful warm place, and it’s been a great experience for people with disabilities,” Betsy says. “The shop is just one part of the journey on what makes life good for all of us—where you work, how you recreate, what you do in your leisure time, who your friends are, and where you live. I think they are the things we all look for in life and they fulfill us.”
“The people in the shop, we’re just people,” Betsy says. “The cool thing about people in the arts who are not disabled is they don’t care—it’s more about what you can do. I see them talking about what people are creating because it is so phenomenal.”
Artists who offer their work for sale in the shop are not charged for space, but are asked to make a donation based on what sells. “That money goes back to the nonprofit to keep this unique thing going,” Betsy says.
The Gail (Walsh) whose name is on the shop was the mother of two boys with autism whom Betsy had worked with as an ABA therapist. She was amazed at what Betsy had done for her son and expressed her hope that her boys would be able to do something similar one day. A couple years later Gail reached out to Betsy and told her, “It’s time. I want to get my boys involved with you.” They made a lunch date, but the two women did not meet again because Gail was killed in a car accident.
Nonetheless both of her boys volunteer at the store, as does their father, Dan, and are employed.
Explaining the genesis of the store’s name, Betsy says, Gail is on the masthead “because she is the mother who is not here.” But the full name is a play on words: “It’s Gail Force Winds, not only because of the types of mothers we are and were—the force behind our children,” Betsy says. It also alludes to the site of their one yearly fundraiser, the Riverton Yacht Club, where “the winds in their sails is what brings the money into the store.” These funds supplement what the shop itself brings in and helps pay for overhead.
The nonprofit also hosts a community garden in Delanco Township in Burlington County, not too far from Willingboro; it pays for art-based classes for people with disabilities and also supports inclusion classes. Over the years the nonprofit has created opportunities in Mercer, Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester when people reach out to them.
After graduating from Steinert High School, Betsy started in the nonprofit world as a secretary for for the Lutheran Social Services, took a detour into political fundraising for Thomas Kane, via the Governor’s Club under the Republican State Committee, but then returned to her nonprofit roots to work as administrative assistant to the director of COSAC (now known as Autism NJ), a small organization started by parents of people with autism. After Jon was born, she left COSAC to spend the year with her new baby boy, but found after Jon was diagnosed with autism that “I had all the tools from working there [at COSAC] to know what I needed for this baby that I held in my arms.”
“Now I was on the autism mom journey, running here and there, starting swimming groups, doing things in the community for young children,” she says. But it wasn’t easy. When the Yards lived in Ewing Township, they had to keep going to court to force the school district to provide FAPE (free, appropriate public education), nationally mandated under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Although they regularly won in court, Betsy says, “they set you up for failure,” and “the stress that it put on the family was horrible.” So she decided for the moment to homeschool Jon.
She created an individualized, tailored program for her son, working with educational consultant Estrella Wells. “My husband calls her the Pied Piper,” Betsy says. “She walked into my house and by the time she walked out, he was responding to his name. I knew I had found someone who was a good match.”
Wells trained Betsy, her husband Jonathan, and various family members in ABA and Greenspan play therapy. “It was a family affair,” she says. To help supplement what the family was doing, Betsy hired college students from then-Trenton State and Rider. “It was amazing. He was growing by leaps and bounds.”
When it became evident that the Ewing Public Schools were not going to accommodate Jon, the Yards decided to move to Burlington Township, where Wells worked for the public schools. Even though Burlington also required some court visits, she says, he got what he needed and was able to attend public school.
Betsy has also worked as an ABA therapist in the public schools in Burlington County and as an advocate for the Association for Schools and Agencies for the Handicapped.
Given that Gail Force Winds doubled in size last year, that Betsy has become visually disabled, and that people need jobs, the board recently voted to hire a few of the volunteers.
The shop also serves as an opportunity for transitional students in area high schools to be involved in structured learning experiences where they can learn employment skills. Currently they are working with Northern Burlington County Regional High School and have offered this possibility to school districts from Princeton to Voorhees. To break down potential barriers for people with different types of disabilities, the shop has an app for deaf people, a bill reader for the blind, and recessed lighting for people who find regular commercial lighting bothersome.
Betsy grew up in Mercerville, the daughter of a single mom, who was a nurse. Back in 1963 when Betsy’s mother got pregnant, she was sent to the Florence Crittenton Home for unwed mothers in Trenton. Betsy was either born in or was moved as an infant to St. Elizabeth’s Home in Yardville, where she was to be put up for adoption. Her mother, with the support of her best friend, managed to get Betsy back. “My mother chose to keep me, which was a very brave thing Betsy’s husband, Trenton native Jonathan Yard, is a distant nephew of the Jonathan Yard who was the first postmaster of Yardville (where Betsy was probably born) in about 1860.
According to a genealogical done by Steve Higham, a cousin of Jonathan’s father, the Yard family reaches back to the Battle of Hastings that began the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The family came to America via Philadelphia in 1688, and one of the brothers, Benjamin Yard, Jonathan’s seventh great-grandfather, moved in about 1700 to Trenton, where he owned an iron and steel foundry. His son, Benjamin, Jr., was a carpenter who built a wooden arch across Broad Street in Trenton commemorating George Washington.
The family has different branches, Jonathan says, with “lots of interesting folks on one side and poor on the other.” Jonathan came from the blue-collar side. His paternal grandfather was a mason and his father a postal worker without much education. Jonathan himself retired from the Bordentown Post Office as a supervisor after 31 years and also served at different post offices in the Trenton area. Now he tutors English as a Second Language and works with special populations at Rowan College at Burlington County, which he loves doing and of course he volunteers at Gail Force Winds.
Other relatives on the “interesting” side of the family include: William Stevenson Yard, who served in the New Jersey state legislature and greeted President Lincoln when he came to Trenton in 1860 or 1861; Molly Yard, former president of the National Organization for Women, and Henry Herbert Yard, an important figure in the history of Ocean Grove, New Jersey.
Jonathan’s father’s oldest sister had powder casks from the Revolutionary War. “We had relatives in all the wars—Civil War, Spanish American War, Mexican War, and World War I and II. My father was in the liberation of Paris,” he said.
Both Jon and Dan and Gail’s two boys are ready, Betsy says, for “a nice man cave,” and their parents are shopping for housing for them. “My son is remarkable,” Betsy says. “He has inspired this whole grassroots nonprofit, and there is none like it in the state.”