April 09, 2020
Midcoast Latest News | Coronavirus | Bangor Metro | Christopher Cassidy | Today's Paper

In wake of autistic son’s death, family strives to build community for those who struggle to belong

As we finish 2016, our thoughts at the BDN turn to the interesting people we met throughout the year. It’s been our privilege to share the snapshots of their lives, whether uplifting, tragic or surreal, with our readers.

Yet we know the story doesn’t end with our telling, and in fact, the story often changes greatly after we’ve told it. This makes “Whatever happened to …” a common refrain not only in our newsroom, but we expect, among the public as well.

That’s why, at the end of this year, we wanted to find out “whatever happened.” For the next few weeks, we’ll be touching base with several Mainers whose stories came to our attention during the year. What we found may sadden, delight, or surprise. In all cases, we hope you enjoy them. You can read more of their stories here.

– Anthony Ronzio, Editor, BDN

SEARSPORT, Maine — Memories of “Jonno” are everywhere at his parents’ home, from the tree and plaque in the backyard, to images and mementos scattered throughout the living room.

His parents hope his legacy will become much more visible to the people of midcoast Maine.

Earlier this year, the Bangor Daily News shared the story of Jonathan “Jonno” Grinstein-Camacho, a 27-year-old autistic man who wandered away from home last December and drowned in a small stream. The family had struggled to find help for their son since moving to Maine earlier that year, and blamed a sluggish, unresponsive system for playing a role in his death.

Today, Christina Camacho and David Grinstein are focusing on keeping their son’s memory alive.

“We want to start a place where people like Jonno can live, thrive and feel welcomed and included,” Camacho said during a recent interview at their home.

They’re pushing to start Jonno’s Place, a shared living community in Belfast for people with disabilities, as well as people without disabilities who want to be part of the community. Camacho and Grinstein are working with Linda Lee, executive director and co-founder of the Help Autism Now Society, to see the project through. Lee wants to name the facility in honor of Jonathan.

An old barn that stood in Hope has been deconstructed and donated to Jonno’s Place. Organizers plan to rebuild it as a community center along Route 1 in Belfast next to the Fireside Inn. They also hope to build a few small homes for those who want to live in the community.

The group is still in the early planning stages, but hopes to ramp up fundraising to bring in $1 million to $2 million to launch the construction project, according to Grinstein.

Camacho said that along with the push to establish Jonno’s Place, some other good resulted from their loss. She said the Searsport Police Department changed its policies to automatically send out a K-9 unit to search when a person with autism or Alzheimer’s goes missing.

The Belfast Police Department also is adding a K-9 unit. The dog starts training with its handler in early March in preparation for joining the force. Belfast police Chief Mike McFadden said he has wanted to bring a dog onto the force since he got the job in 2011, but Jonathan’s disappearance and death reinforced the need for a dog capable of search and rescue.

While police don’t know whether having quick access to a K-9 would have saved Jonathan, McFadden said he would rather have the resource than not. He said his officers search for people who go missing with enough regularity that the dog will prove useful.

Jonathan was a man of many interests, ranging from Japanese anime and glass blowing to spending time in grocery stores and teaching himself Morse code at home. His “workshop” in the garage is now being used by Grinstein. His bedroom has become the family’s hobby room, where Camacho goes to play her accordion

“We always have morning sun here,” Camacho said, sitting in her son’s former bedroom.

Since Jonathan’s death, his family planted a sakura (cherry blossom) tree in the backyard. Jonathan’s brother, Mark, brought the idea back from Japan, where he worked until this year. Traditionally, families hang objects from the trees that remind them of lost loved ones. Camacho hung a string of beads from the tree. In Morse code it reads “Jonno’s sakura.”

A few feet from the tree sits a raspberry bush. Jonathan was a redhead, so the raspberries reminded Camacho and Grinstein of their son. They installed a small plaque in front of the bush, inscribed with Jonathan’s name. They dedicated the tree and plaque during a ceremony in October, a little more than 10 months after their son’s death.

“As we dedicated the plaque, we noticed that there was one beautiful, sweet, red, ripe raspberry on the raspberry patch. Beautiful and sweet and out of season,” Camacho said. “Just like Jonno.”

Anyone who would like to contribute to Jonno’s Place can send donations to the organization at 19 Mortland Road in Searsport, Maine. More information is available at the Jonno’s Place Facebook page.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

 


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