Chautauqua means safe haven for mother and son

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
Peter McDowell meets chimemaster Carolyn Benton at Miller Bell Tower when he takes his dog Luca for a walk. Benton always has a dog treat ready for Luca when she visits.

Many Chautauquans value the Institution for its wealth of programming, opportunities and activities. For Jennifer McDowell, Chautauqua represents a haven for her and her son, Peter, who has Down syndrome.

“When I first got the cottage, I was told that Chautauqua might not be a good place for a young person with a disability — that it was not set up for that,” McDowell said. “And I thought, ‘You’ve got to be crazy.’ This is practically the safest place in the world, and it will be great for Peter.”

As it turns out, McDowell’s hunch was correct.

“It is such a safe and friendly community,” she said. “Everyone on my block knows who Peter is and where he lives. They see him walking the dog to the bell tower every day or heading over to Smith Library with an armload of books and DVDs.”

McDowell feels that one of the greatest advantages to being at Chautauqua is the independence she is able to grant her son, and the peace she has with knowing he’s secure on the grounds.

“We can both relax. I can allow him a freedom that is more difficult to do at home in Pittsburgh,” said McDowell. “I live in a great community there, but I can’t just let him go out on his bicycle, for instance. Here, I can do that. I can’t just let him walk to the theater. Here, he walks to the cinema and back without me — and gets annoyed if I try to follow him.”

The opportunity to be so independent has helped Peter in ways that McDowell had not anticipated.

“I think it has increased his confidence in doing things that he knows he can do, but I didn’t necessarily know yet that he could do. Any mother will tell you that’s often the case with any kid, but when you have a child with a disability, it’s a bigger issue,” McDowell said. “It just clicked for me one day that this is one of the reasons that Chautauqua is so important to me and why I give now.”

McDowell said that her decision to donate to the Institution is directly inspired by her passion to maintain the Chautauqua experience and environment she has come to love.

“We only get a one-week vacation together each year, so it needs to be great for both of us,” she said. “It took a year or two, but now I’m really confident that he’s going to be safe and happy and engaged here, and I want that to continue.”

Aside from the comfort she and her son experience here, McDowell’s favorite aspect of Chautauqua is the community itself.

“Being a single mom at this point in my life, Chautauqua is an instant social and cultural setting that I can just drop into and go,” she said. “I’ve got wonderful neighbors all around me and there’s this instant access to all kinds of great stuff.”

McDowell has two other grown children and has recently started a small nonprofit in Pittsburgh that focuses on issues of children’s nutrition and food security called Giving2Grow.

“I think about Chautauqua all year long,” she said. “Chautauqua just offers me this window that’s almost ready-made to jump into and yet it’s always different. It’s very much a high point in my year.”