Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Wednesdays with Dorothy: How It All Began

(This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)
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Charlie and Dorothy at the dinner table

I first met Dorothy Burdette in 1987 when I was Program Director for the St. Andrew’s Foundation on Birmingham’s Southside. She had come to the St. Andrew’s Foundation Group Homes in 1975 after having spent 35 years being institutionalized at Partlow State School. By 1980, she was living in her own apartment, having achieved a long-held dream to live on her own. She maintained that dream for the rest of her life, with help from her friends.

When I was New to the Neighborhood

When I first began at St. Andrew’s Foundation in 1984, my duties were primarily in one of the group homes where eight residents lived. Many of our residents had come from Partlow State School which had come under court order in 1974 to de-institutionalize as a result of the Wyatt v. Stickney law suit. One of the rulings in that case was that Partlow State School and Hospital was "warehousing" its residents and was "wholly incapable of furnishing [habilitation] to the mentally retarded and [was] conducive only to the deterioration and the debilitation of the residents."

I learned a lot as I came to know the group home residents where I worked – all of whom had mental retardation as their primary diagnosis (Developmental Disabilities is the general term now used in diagnosis).  The people I worked with would sometimes talk about what life was like in the state institution. As I would hear some of those guys talk, I would think to myself, “Someone should be writing this stuff down!” It was when I was promoted to Program Director with a wider range of responsibilities that I began my interactions with Dorothy. It was there that I began to hear her story, and there that I began a friendship that would last for years to come.

Even though she had graduated from our group homes and our supervised living apartments, Dorothy Faye Burdette, or Dorothy Faye as we sometimes called her, still found a supportive community among the St. Andrew’s Foundation staff. That is how Ms. Burdette and I met and became friends. She would come by the office from time to time for help figuring out her bills, or with an official letter from some government agency that she needed help understanding. Often we would meet for lunch and then travel to the Food Stamp office so she could pick up her monthly food stamp allotment.

In addition to maintaining a community of support in our offices, Ms. Burdette found similarly supportive communities at her church and among her neighborhood friends. She treasured having her own apartment, and she also had a determination to maintain friendships.  Remarkably, she was able to continue living in the apartment that she moved into over 30 years ago until her death this year at the age of 82. Much of her success was due to her ability to garner her own support system that included friends, church members, and social workers.

Staying in Touch

I moved on from St. Andrew’s Foundation in 1996 to work in the field of healthcare as a registered nurse. Dorothy Burdette and I continued to stay connected. Sometimes I would meet with her for lunch, sometimes she would call me up on the telephone. Sometimes my wife and I would invite her over to our house for a holiday meal. Often when we would meet, she would have a few things she wanted me to help her with: shopping for groceries, getting her bills paid, balancing her checkbook, fixing something that came loose in her apartment.

Sometimes when we met, Dorothy would mention things about her life growing up, or about life in the institution and I would again say to myself, “Someone should write this down.” Finally I decided that I needed to start writing some things down. I thought Dorothy Burdette had an important story to tell, so I asked her if she would be willing for me to record the story of her life in her own words.  We met weekly, usually in her living room, and I ended up with around nine hours of conversation. I would ask her questions about her experiences, and she would provide many fascinating details. I eventually had the story of Dorothy Burdette’s life in her own words which I was able to put into a book. I'll never forget the look on her face when I placed her own book into her hands.

I would like to share on my blog the remarkable life of my friend who made it through incredible poverty, hardship, abuse and institutionalization to find a life of her own with friends to support her. I’m going to call these posts “Wednesdays with Dorothy,” because I hope to be able to get a post each Wednesday to tell you a little more of her life each week.


[Note: The group homes and supervised apartments formerly known as the St. Andrew's Foundation are now under the auspices of The ARC of Jefferson County]

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1 comment:

  1. How well I remember Dorothy and many of the members of the Grouup Homes. And Cecil. I will look foirward to your blogs on Dorothy.


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