Monday, December 31, 2012

Monday Music: What a Wonderful World

After looking at many different versions of  "Auld Lang Syne" I decided the best way to end the year would be with Louis Armstrong's version of "What a Wonderful World." Armstrong made his mark as a trumpeter/band leader in dixieland jazz, yet his gravelly joyful voice had its own special appeal as we can hear in this song that topped the charts in 1968 - that was a year we really needed a word of optimism.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Feast of the Holy Innocents

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
                                                      A voice was heard in Ramah,
                                                      wailing and loud lamentation,
                                                      Rachel weeping for her children;
                                                      she refused to be consoled,
                                                      because they are no more.
                                                                     ~Matthew 2:17,18

December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Dating back to the fifth century, this feast day commemorates the slaughter of all male children under the age of two as ordered by Herod, the Roman appointed King of the Jews.  Every year in the Christmas story, we hear of this action as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. It is often given only cursory attention. The Coventry Carol recalls the tragedy of “Herod the King, in his raging/ Charged he hath this day/ His men of might, in his own sight/ All young children to slay.”  Usually I do not dwell on that aspect of Christ’s coming into the world.  When I do think about it, I think of how horrible an event like that would be, but I don’t let myself feel the pain of such a slaughter.  After all, it is Christmas – a time to dwell upon the joy and the wonder of the season.

This year, however, the death of the innocents came all too close to home. We could not help feeling the pain and the loss when the news came of 20 young children in Newtown, Connecticut being shot in their class room by an unstable man with a high capacity assault rifle. All of the children were 6 or 7 years old. For days the news of the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School filled our TV screens. The President visited the town and spoke to the community and the nation at a prayer vigil for those children and adults who lost their lives. Funerals were held and the nation mourned along with the Connecticut families whose children were taken away in an instant.

This year, the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown has given us a different perspective. We have been forced to realize that while we celebrate the coming of light into a world of darkness, we still live with much darkness.  We speak of the wonder of Emmanuel, “God with us,” while we are forced to ask ourselves were God was on this day.  For me, because of the truth that God is with us, then God must be here suffering with us, as God does with each daily tragedy somewhere in the world. We who are living are left to ask ourselves what we will do in light of this suffering to make our world a safer place.

Much has been written in recent days dealing with these very questions of how could this happen and what can we do now? While the story recalled by the Coventry Carol at Christmas can be neatly explained by an evil king with an army at his disposal, our tragedy is not so simple.  Rather than wringing our hands and saying,  “Oh, how evil this is,” we must address the systemic flaws in our country that make us more susceptible to gun violence than any other industrialized nation.  Many innocents died this December because we have a woefully inadequate mental health system, and we have woefully glorified the use and ownership of guns. These are problems that can be addressed if we have the courage to change our ways.

Here are a few articles that have been written in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy:

*   *   *

For this liturgical day to call to mind the Holy Innocents, here is a prayer from the church liturgy:

A Prayer To The Holy Innocents

Holy Innocents, you died before you were old enough to know what life means, pray for all children who die young that God may gather them into His loving arms.

Holy Innocents, you were killed because one man
was filled with hatred, pray for those who hate that God may touch their hearts and fill them with love.

Holy Innocents, you experienced a violent death, pray for all who are affected by violence that they may find peace and love.

Holy Innocents, your parents grieved for you with deep and lasting sorrow, pray for all parents who have lost young children that God may wrap a warm blanket of comfort around them.

Holy Innocents, those around you certainly felt helpless to prevent your deaths, pray for all who feel helpless in their circumstances that they may cling to God for courage and hope.

Holy Innocents, you who are now in Heaven, pray for all of us that one day we may join you there to bask in God's love forever.



Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Wednesdays with Dorothy: Freedom to Shop

(This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)
< Previous post                                                                                                                     Next post >

One of the buildings at Partlow State School (photo by Naaman Fletcher)

Finding Appropriate Care

At the time of the Wyatt v. Stickney case, there were “over 3,000 residents living in overcrowded and inhumane conditions who had no legal alternative.”(1) Many of those residents were rather high functioning mildly retarded people who were even used by the mental health system to help run the institution. As Dorothy has recounted, they were called upon to help with the care of many of the severely handicapped residents and were enlisted to do the washing, cleaning, and cooking alongside employees and always without pay. Those at the "Boy's Colony" did the agricultural work that brought in income to the institution.(2)  It was these residents who surely knew that they were being denied options in life that they wanted to take part in.

On the other hand there were the severely handicapped residents who were warehoused and abused at the hands of poorly trained employees supervising the “high-grade” residents who participated in the care of the “low-grade” residents. In those days, parents of severely handicapped children were routinely advised by medical professionals that institutional care was the best option for their children, not realizing the detrimental warehousing conditions of those very institutions.

When I was Program Director at the St. Andrew’s Foundation, part of my duties included gathering information about new residents coming into our group homes. I will never forget the conversations I had with parents, almost always mothers, about their adult children with developmental disabilities. On one occasion, a mother described how she had been assured by the doctor that Partlow was the right place for her eight-year-old son, and how she watched as a staff person took her son’s hand and lead him away on the day he was admitted. My own daughter was around five years old at the time. I thought of how I could not bear to think of placing her, with her normal coping skills in some institution away from home, yet so many who lacked those very skills, were routinely institutionalized “for their own good.” We cannot minimize the hardships faced by parents of children with developmental disabilities. As a society we must offer resources to help. We must not, however, resort to insufficient means of caring for those children and their families.

Adventures in Shopping

Dorothy Burdette loved to shop, perhaps more than any other activity. When talking about her experiences at Partlow State School in juxtaposition to her life outside the institution, shopping was often the big comparison in her mind. At Partlow there was no freedom to leave the campus, no freedom to make decisions, no freedom to shop. Here are some of Dorothy’s adventures in shopping when she was finally able to leave the institution.

Dorothy Burdette
“Robbie worked at the group home. He made me mad one time. He said, ‘You owe me a cup of coffee, and I gave you a ten dollar bill.’ I said, ‘I didn’t ask for no money from you Robbie and furthermore, I don’t owe you no coffee! You owe me some!’ And later on he did get me a cup of coffee.

“What happened was, he took me to get something for my birthday, and he wouldn’t let me get it. It made me mad with him.  It turned out I didn’t have enough money – I was ten dollars short. We ended up going to Woolworth’s and getting some coffee.”

 “[When I needed to go shopping] I used to go downtown by myself half the time. I remember one time I went with Jim when he worked there. I got some of them week day panties and some of those soup labels – they used to make them like what came on Campbell’s Soup cans- and I got some of them. Cathy said they were for little bitty young ‘uns and I didn’t have any sense getting things that were not big enough for me. She told me I didn’t know how to buy the right size. It made me mad, and I told her, she didn’t know what I didn’t have, and I’d get what I wanted to and it wasn’t none of her business.”

 “I liked to make my own decisions about what I bought. When I was at Partlow, we couldn’t go out shopping, and we couldn’t make decisions about the clothes we wore or the things we bought. For our clothes, they would order cloth for the sewing room, then they would sew it into clothes and give ‘em to us. They had different staff that would come in and sew.”

 “Once I was at the group home, I went several times to shop and Cathy would always get mad. She’d say, ‘You always go off and leave us – you don’t wait for us.’ I’d get my cart and away I’d go. She said, ‘Can’t nobody keep up with you, you don’t wait on nobody.’ Usually they would take about two or three of us at a time when we went out shopping. I always went with who I wanted to. I didn’t much care for Cathy, she had a hot temper.”
“I liked the food better [at the group home] that at Partlow, and I liked that I could go with the group home staff to do the grocery shopping.”

“I remember my first Christmas in Birmingham. In the group home, we would go out to do Christmas shopping and to look at all the Christmas lights.”


References cited:

1. The Legacy of Wyatt ,
2. Penley, Gary, Della Raye: A Girl Who Grew Up in Hell and Emerged Whole (2002). Pelican Publishing, p. 71.


  • The photo from Partlow State School was taken by Naaman Fletcher years after the institution was closed down. Naaman's photos are featured on his blog What's Left of Birmingham at .
  • The photo of Dorothy was taken about the time she left Partlow. It was one she kept on her dresser in her apartment.

<Previous post                                                                                                            Next post >


Monday, December 24, 2012

Monday Music: Wexford Carol

The Wexford Carol may be my all time favorite carol. It is an Irish carol that originated in County Wexford and dates from the 12th century. My first encounter with the carol was in the mid 1980s when I was singing in the choir at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Birmingham.  John Rutter’s arrangement and recording of the carol is one of the best, in my opinion. (Yo Yo Ma and Alison Krauss also recorded a beautiful rendition of the carol which you can find on a previous post here) 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Winter Solstice and a Poem for the Longest Night

(This is my post from last year. It continues to get many hits, especially this week, so I decided to re-post it for today)

This day marks the time of the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and the longest night of the year. It is no accident that Christmas, which celebrates the Light of the world in the coming of Christ, and Hanukah, the Festival of Lights, both come at mid winter when people have for ages celebrated the joy of light on the darkest day of the year. There are many festive Christmas lights adorning homes, shrubs and trees in my neighborhood this year. 

Here is a poem I wrote several years ago after contemplating some of those ancient times and thinking about how fire and light calls to something universal and cosmic within us. 2,500 years ago, maybe even 3,000 years ago, after people in Persia had organized themselves into cities, Zarathustra (or Zoroaster) became the prophet of Ahura Mazda (the Wise Lord) and Zoroastrianism became the first urban religion. A central ritual was something called the fire sacrifice which Zarathustra may have borrowed from even older religious practices. Thinking about these primitive beginnings inspired me to write the following poem.

 To Zarathustra
        Did the Wise Lord request an offering of fire?
        Or did we simply want to share
           our deepest fascination,
        Watching the fire split the night
        As an echo to the distant stars?
        Our hearts danced as our hands trembled
        Before the carefully contained flames
        As fire without
        Called to fire within.
        We made for ourselves lights in the night
        As we began to find our way.
        Today the fire is surging.
        It trembles beneath the surface
        And flashes into the open.
        Day is cast forth into the night
        As the energy lines our streets,
        Flickers in our cinemas,
        Flashes upon our billboards
        And flutters in our homes.
        Did anyone request an offering of fire?
        Or did we simply want to share
           our deepest fascination?

                                           Charles Kinnaird          

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Wednesdays with Dorothy: Activities in the Community

(This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)
< Previous post                                                                                                                     Next post >

The group homes at St. Andrew’s Foundation offered residents coming out of Partlow State School a place to find a new life for themselves. They had a real house in a real neighborhood. They had opportunity to learn household skills and a chance to gain some work skills. Some parishioners at St. Andrew's may remember Cecil Cruise who lived at the group home and later moved into a supervised apartment. Cecil was an acolyte at St. Andrew’s Church. He took the bus each day to Brookwood Mall where he worked at Jobe Rose Jewelers for many years. Before coming to St. Andrew’s Foundation, Cecil had known nothing but institutional life. He had lived in an orphanage from infancy until his admission to Partlow during childhood.  The Rev. Francis Walter, in his recollections of the St. Andrew’s Foundation, related a very touching story  about how Cecil influenced yet another life and in his own way you could say that Cecil expanded the ministry of St. Andrew's.

The goal of the St. Andrew’s Foundation was to enable its residents to live as independently as possible and to enjoy the normal routines and rhythms of life as set forth in Wolf Wolfensberger's concept of normalization. Dorothy Burdette and Cecil Cruise were among the first to come out of Partlow State School to St. Andrew’s.  In my conversations with Dorothy, she was eager to tell me about the time she spent learning to live and work in the community.  

Today I am sharing some of Dorothy’s memories about learning opportunities and recreational events while she was living at the St. Andrew’s Foundation. Some of the points Dorothy makes here appear to be repetitive because I compiled her recollections from several different conversations.

"At the group homes we were able to go out to the movie theater. I went with Cliff and saw Song of the South. That’s about uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit. And then we went and saw Fantasia. One time we went to see Private Benjamin – Goldie Hawn played in that one. I haven’t been to see a movie in so long now. When we were at the group home they took us out to see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That one kind of reminded me of life at Partlow."

"Cliff and I have been friends, I reckon 25 years, and he said that I was the best friend that he had ever had. I really really like to make friends with anybody. I like to meet folks and make friends if they want to be friends.  I met Cliff when I used to go downtown to Adult Basics. Adult Basics was a place where they teach you to read and write.  They tried to teach me how to do arithmetic, but I still couldn’t get nowhere with that. I went down there a good little while. Sometimes we would take the bus down there, and sometime Harry would take me – I liked to go with Harry.  Then I met Cliff. He started teaching at Goodwill and Margaret Maynor was my teacher, I don’t know where she’s at now, and then she turned me over to Cliff, and that’s how I met him.  One time I wanted Cliff to bring me home, I lived at 1116, and he had to go pick up his mother, I think at daycare. He told me that Evelyn was going to take me home. Evelyn kept asking me where I lived and I got aggravated. I said, “Evelyn! I live in a yellow house on Southside, 1116!” I yelled out at her before I even thought of myself. She finally found it.  I don’t know whatever happened to her."    

"I had a little job at Goodwill for about three months, but I didn’t like it.  They put me on one of those jobs sorting out nuts and bolts. I didn’t like that. Then they put me on coat hangers – straightening out coat hangers. After that they moved me to the ironing room, ironing clothes. I liked the ironing room.

"And then there was Occupational Rehab. I went there for about three years and then my time ran out. It was down on 16th avenue. I started going downtown to that class. Sharon and Cliff were our instructors. I stayed friends with Cliff all these years."

"I used to work with Erskin Lewis when he worked at the church. We’d go to St. Stephen’s and downtown to the Carpenter House and over in Mountain Brook to Randolph Realties and all them things. We’d clean houses and offices, and down at the church we’d always clean the recreation hall and the bathroom.  My time was up, and I never did go back no more. Virginia Sherrer kept working there, I haven’t seen her in years and years."

"The hardest part, once I got in the group home, was that I wanted to go out by myself and they wouldn’t allow me to be out by myself. I was wantin’ me a little house somewhere. I thought sure I could find one. I was over there [in the group home] for several years.

*    *    *

Next week: Adventures in Shopping!


For additional Reading:

<Previous post                                                                                                            Next post >


Monday, December 17, 2012

Monday Music: O Come, Emmanuel

The beautiful and ancient Advent hymn, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," first known in Latin as  "Veni, veni, Emmanuel" and translated into English in the mid-19th century, it has traditionally been sung on Sundays of Advent as we await the promise of Christmas. The text is based on Isaiah 7:14 that God will give his people a sign that will be called Immanuel, which means, "God with us."   This beautiful instrumental version features The Piano Guys on cello and piano.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Wednesdays with Dorothy: Finding My Way in the City

(This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)
< Previous post                                                                                                                     Next post >

A view of the Birmingham city skyline - photo taken from Argyle Road

There is so much involved in learning to live independently: managing your money and paying bills, keeping your belongings safe, buying and preparing food, shopping for clothes and keeping them clean, attending to health needs and doctor visits, keeping your living quarters clean and safe. So much of what we consider to be independent living is taken for granted by most of us, but for people with disabilities, daily obstacles and frustrations can abound.

The Women's Group Home (left)
next door to the Intermediate
Group Home (right)
The work of the St. Andrew’s Foundation involved assessing each resident’s needs and capabilities and then plotting a habilitation plan. Each resident had his or her own teaching and training plan to address the skills they needed to acquire and things they needed to learn in order to live more independently. For one resident, a training plan might involve helping them to learn to take the bus to a sheltered workshop, for another it might be guided instruction in operating a washing machine. For yet another, their program might include a step by step behavioral program to get them to brush their teeth each day.

Not every resident at the group homes would be able to transition to independent living or even to a staff-supervised apartment, but the goal was to allow each person to live as normal a life as possible with as much independence as possible. I knew what the process was like from a staff member’s point of view, but as I spoke with Dorothy about her life, I was interested in hearing about the process from her point of view. Here are some things she had to say about her new life and training at the group homes.  You’ll see that she didn’t get along with every staff person in the process, but isn’t that the way it is with all of us, even under the best of circumstances?

Life on Southside

I used to walk all the way downtown by myself when we were in that group home. I could go down town and shop and get ice cream and stuff. You could go in those picture booths and take your picture for a quarter. You could have coffee, I just enjoyed doing it.  Sometimes I’d take the bus and go down to Pizitz Bakery and order my birthday cakes.

[At the group home] I learnt how to operate a coin laundry, how to clean floors, how to go around and make sure everybody else cleaned up. I started out at Goodwill [Industries] but I didn’t really like going over there. I was there about two or three months and then I quit.

Some of My Teachers at the Group Homes

I came to Birmingham April the eighth 1975. I moved into the Women’s Group Home at 1124 with Jim and Cathy [group home coordinators] . She was a little old Irish girl, and I mean she had one more temper. Me and her didn’t get along too good. I tried everything I could to stay out of her way.

I didn’t care much for Cathy. She was a little ol’ young thing and I thought she was really a spit-fire. I liked Jim and I liked Edsel and Francis and Faye.  I remember one time I got on the bus, I was supposed to be going to the library downtown. I ended up way down on Vanderbilt [Road] near that bridge, and I didn’t have no way of getting back. It so happened that a man came along and I told him and he took me down to the library downtown. Cathy found it out and she got so mad. She said “You don’t even know how to ride the bus. I oughtta knew you didn’t have no better sense.” That night we went to a movie over on Greensprings. She said, “Are you going to get your money out, Dorothy, or are you just going to stand there?”

That made me mad. I said “Well, I’m not going to stand here!” I said to her, “I’ll never go with you nowhere else again.” She told me to shut up and I said, “I don’t have to. So help me Jesus I’ll never go with you to another movie or anywhere else.” And I didn’t go with her ever again.

They showed us how to shop for our groceries. I’d walk on through the store and they couldn’t even catch up with me. I still like to go shopping!

At 1124 [the Women’s Group Home] me and Dorothy Goldberg were roommates, then it was me and Virginia Sherrer when I moved into 1116 [the Intermediate Group Home]. Everywhere I went, I really liked to room by myself. Just like now when I have to go into the hospital I ask for my own room.

They tried to teach me how to manage my money. I would get my money and I wouldn’t even think, I’d just go out and spend it. Sometimes I’d run out of money before the end of the month.

*    *    *    *

Next time we will hear more from Dorothy about activities in the community.

<Previous post                                                                                                            Next post >


Monday, December 10, 2012

Monday Music: Once in Royal David's City

This is one of the most British Christmas carols. In fact, the first time I recall hearing it was when I was living in what was then the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. I heard the carol sung in the Chinese Baptist church in Kowloon where I attended, then I heard it at the midnight mass on Christmas Eve at St. John's Anglican Cathedral on Hong Kong Island. It is often the leading hymn for the traditional lessons and carols service. Here it is being sung at King's College, Cambridge.

Friday, December 7, 2012

An Interview with Francis Walter

The Reverend Francis Walter Talks about Life, Community, Justice and Disability at the St. Andrew's Foundation

My blog series, “Wednesdays with Dorothy” tells of the life of a woman who came to the St. Andrew’s Foundation as part of her transition from institutional life to community life. It is her story in her own words. I have also written some about my story involving the St. Andrew’s Foundation (you can see those essays here and here). My story, however, as well as Dorothy’s story at the St. Andrew’s Foundation would not have happened without Francis Walter’s story.

The St. Andrew’s Foundation was established under the leadership of the Reverend Francis Walter in 1973. He had previously been director of the Selma Interreligous Project during the civil rights struggle and in that role, among other things, had sponsored the Freedom Quilting Bee which was a cooperative that enabled poor black women to raise money for their impoverished region. (You can read about that project here.)

Francis hired me to work at the group homes in 1984. Since those days he went on to become rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. He currently lives in retirement with his wife, Faye, at their home in Sewanee, Tennessee. I was able to catch up with Francis recently by telephone to talk with him about the early days of the St. Andrew’s Foundation. The following is his recollection of how it all began.

Francis Walter during the days
of the Selma Project
(Birmingham Library Archives photo)
The first thing that happened was that the Selma Interreligious Project at the end of our era had a good bit of foundation money. We had two lawyers that worked for us – they later formed their law firm and we were their clients. Jack Drake was one of them, he still practices law in Birmingham and he’s a fascinating guy. He became sort of a sub-lawyer in the lawsuit that was Wyatt vs. Stickney. He assisted. So there was kind of a vote of the Selma Project. We said, well that certainly would help a lot of poor people. We said, “Sure, you can take that on as a project until you start getting paid anything for it, the Selma Project will pay for it.” So we began to hear about it, then the lawsuit was won.  The Psychology Department at the University of Alabama was very helpful – they were on the side of the angels. There were people at the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation who were bitterly opposed to any improvement – they  didn’t like the lawsuit, though there were other people [at the Mental Health Department] who secretly did [agree with the lawsuit] and we got to know them. 

The First Group Home in Alabama

So the University of Alabama Psychology Department thought that they might become the primary agent for de-institutionalization. Ray Fowler was the head of the Psychology Department. He and Jack and I would get together and talk now and then. One of the things we thought of was to have an office in each county and let people  like in Gee’s Bend  let people have one mentally handicapped person in each household. They could be paid a small amount of money and there would be a bus that would pick people up and take them to a center where they could improve their skills. It would bring some money to the poorest people in Alabama and they were also very loving people and most of them were black – and so we talked about that. But then the forces behind implementing Wyatt v. Stickney said we needed to have a group home, so the Selma Interreligious Project bought a house in Tuscaloosa right next door. We hired some people to be house parents. We had read Normalization and knew something about things like that and it was a nice old house. 

I had a little Volkswagen and I set out to Partlow – I had never been there before – to pick up two guys and take them down, show them the house, and ask if they would like to live there. This was going to be the first one, the grand experiment. We decided to name it Wyatt House after Ricky Wyatt. That was kind of a slap in the face of the Alabama Department of Mental Retardation because they were going to fund it, part of it, anyway. 

I had never been around identified mentally handicapped people. These two guys were in their fifties – one of them, I remember, was named Guy Wheatley. I was a little apprehensive, but after we were halfway there, it was only a couple of miles, I realized, well they’re just like me, they’re not any different. I remember I said, “What do you do Mr. Wheatley?” he said “I’m an inside plumber.”  I said, what’s an inside plumber? He said “I live at Partlow and I’m a plumber” There’s a plumbing company that does all the plumbing work and some of us belong to it.”  In other words there was an ordinary plumbing company and they would come on campus [at Partlow] and they would pick up these guys who they taught to become plumbers and they all worked together, but the inside plumbers never got paid anything. Wheatley said “I’d like to live in a group home, and the plumbing company told me they would hire me. If I’m not an inside plumber anymore, I could be an outside plumber and get paid.”  I thought, Well, that’s one example of how these people were taken advantage of.

So the other guy said, “I work in the canteen that sells soda pop and candy.” I asked him what he would like to do if he gets out. He said, “I don’t want to lose my job.  I’d like to come back to work at Partlow.” I asked him why, he said “They take state holidays – I’d have more holidays if I worked for them.”

They both moved in to the group home and we were the very first group home in Tuscaloosa. The Selma Project managed it, and it was right next door.  These were pretty high functioning people who first came out of [of the institution]. I think we had about eight residents there at Wyatt House.  So that was when I got interested in the work.

The Second Group Home

Then my wife and I got divorced, I resigned from the Selma Project and needed a job.  Ray Fowler said, “You could work with us. The state wants us to start a group home in Montgomery.  We’ve gotta do it in a big hurry and then we’ll take politicians through it to show them how nice it works – that they should continue to fund the de-institutionalization of Partlow and Bryce.”

So there were three of us on this task force. We didn’t have any time, we had to do it all at once, and it was really not very good. I just moved down to Montgomery, rented a hotel room and started reading the newspapers and talking to people. Within a few days we found this house that we could rent. Then I began to look for staff members. We were working from the idea that we could operate a group home from Tuscaloosa that was in Montgomery. So we had house parents and other workers who could relieve them. Well, then all of a sudden one of the relief workers doesn’t show up. They [the house parents] telephoned and said they were mad, that they were just going to walk out and leave all these people [the group home residents]. It was not a well thought out plan but it was the second group home [that was set up for residents from Partlow].

Things Fall into Place for the St. Andrew’s Foundation

I heard that the state was willing to talk to churches and non-profits about operating group homes. I knew that the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama had inherited these three houses on Birmingham’s Southside.  A woman had wanted a religious community to move to Birmingham and live there. She wanted St. Andrew’s Church to sponsor them. That didn’t work out, so she decided to just leave the property to the diocese. I went to the bishop and told him about how they could be group homes. Maurice Branscomb, the rector at St. Andrew’s said it would be great, the parish would love to sponsor it, and the residents would be welcome to worship here. So one thing led to another.

 Three houses in a row came to be the Women's Group Home (left), the Intermediate Group Home (partially pictured at the center) and the Men's Group Home (right)

Then a really generous thing happened that was so implausible for a political agency to do it. A lot of women worked as social workers in the Department of Mental Health. I was talking to one of these women there about this possibility.  She said, “That would be great, but we won’t have the money to do it until October.” She then said, “Here’s what we’ll do – we’ll hire you as a consultant for the Mental Retardation Department.” I asked her what I would do. She said I would just wait until it was funded and then I would go on the payroll of the Mental Retardation Department.  So I moved into the house in the neighborhood which I later bought.  An elderly woman lived there and initially I was going to move into the upstairs portion, but she died. The owner of the house was a member of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. She told me to just go ahead and move in, and until we got things funded, she wouldn’t charge any rent.

It was perfect, because I had been reading about the problems that arise when you try to have a group home in a neighborhood.  Living there, I was able to join the Neighborhood Association and talk to people beforehand.  So the Diocese gave the go ahead to use the property for group homes. I hired Jim and Cathy. They were hired before we had any residents. We would do things like mow the lawns and clean the houses. We went to talk to mentally handicapped people and got ready to fund the thing.

The Road to a New Life

Something else had happened back before what I’ve been talking about here. Right after the divorce, I was really at a low point. We had sold our house and I moved into a room at the Selma Project House in Tuscaloosa. I knew the Trinitarian Sisters, a Roman Catholic order. Their mission was to work in the very poorest of parishes.  I had come to know them through civil rights work. One of them called me up. She knew what had happened to me and she said, “I want you to drive to Mobile and you are going to experience something that will change your life.”

I was ready to do things like that, so I said, “Okay, what is it?”

She said, “We are going to show a movie about a community for mentally handicapped people in France. “

“Where will it be?” I asked

“Are you familiar with the Allen Memorial Hospital in Mobile?”

“Yes, I was born there.”

“Well, after we show the movie, they’re going to tear it down.”

I thought, “Boy that is really synchronicity. The Holy Spirit is telling me to go. Here my life has been turned upside down.  Then I get this call to go and have a life-changing experience in the building in which I was born and then they’re going to tear it down the next day. “

It was a movie about the L’Arche Community. Then Jean Vanier [the founder of L’Arche] was invited by the Roman Catholic bishop in Birmingham to come to lead a retreat at Camp Tekawitha. So I got myself invited to it. It was three or four days. He lectured; there were a lot of mentally handicapped people there. It was very moving. Vanier is an incredible human being to be around. I saw how he related to mentally handicapped people, and I got to hear what his theories were.  That really also set me on the path.

The life of Vanier is just amazing. His father was the governor-general of Canada, which is like being the president. His mother was a university professor. He was on the road to being an academic at some university. He was in Europe and he had this experience of meeting two mentally retarded men under a bridge – that’s where they were living. He said to them, “How would you like to live with me? We’ll just get a house.” He decided to turn his back on a brilliant academic career and start this community. The little town was called Trosly-Breuil in France.

Learning from the L’Arche Community

After we got the staff members hired [at the St. Andrew’s Foundation], even before we got the first residents we got some money to send some of our staff members to a L’Arche Community in Toronto.  Those buildings there were designed according to normalization and L’Arche principles. The houses in Toronto, I can’t remember the name of the community up there, it was mostly Roman Catholic, so they were not using government funds. The houses were decorated with lots of beautiful colors. The center of each house was a large dining room and a big table where everybody sat.  All of the mentally retarded people had their own napkin rings and cloth napkins and were very fancy. When guests came, they had paper napkins. The guests were expected to prepare at least one meal for the house in which they were staying. Everybody had a wonderful time at the table, talking and joking.  All of these people, the staff members, were just living on a token salary – that was how they operated – so they would stay there two or three years.  That was a great experience, though I knew we couldn’t have a L’Arche community. We didn’t have the money to start one in Birmingham, but one got started in Mobile as a result of that retreat that was held in Birmingham.

So that’s how the St. Andrew’s Foundation got started. John Prince [who was a priest as well as an attorney] drew up our papers. He said, “Let’s call it a foundation, then we won’t be using any terms that refer to mental disability, and it will be linked to the church.” It was stipulated that parishioners would make up a certain percentage of the board.  We also had the space at the church to have our offices. So I read Normalization and I read materials that came from L’Arche.  We often said, Harry and I, that we never had any trouble relating to our clients. All the trouble we had was relating Mental Retardation Department of the State of Alabama. I have to say that one of the things that made the St. Andrew’s Foundation work was Harry Hamilton – he is an exceptional human being. I’ve been re-reading The Canterbury Tales, and there is that line, “Gladly would he teach and gladly would he learn.” That’s Harry.

Some of Our First Residents

We had a resident, a black woman named Earline. She died while she was a resident. We organized a funeral for her. If we had done nothing, her body would have been taken back to Partlow and placed in a grave that had a concrete marker with a number on it.  The whole staff said, “We’re not going to let that happen.” It was a wonderful event.  Very moving. I wrote a paper about it for an organization we belonged to of group homes for mentally retarded people. The title of the paper was “Earline.” I thought it was very illustrative of how the St. Andrew’s Foundation operated.  

Francis Walter in 1990 as
rector of St Andrew's Church
I’ll tell you one story about Earline. Earline always came to church at St. Andrews. She would sit in the back pew. When the celebrant [at the altar] would hold his or her hands up in the orans position, Earline would always do that. It was not the first time that I had thought this, but as far as the bodily parts of the liturgy that involved moving around like that, the people who were mentally handicapped, because they weren’t so uptight, they were more open to doing things like that. So Earline would always hold her arms up like that, and I thought, well she would fit in a second or third century church because everybody held their hands up. So when the priest held his hands up so would Earline, and I always really liked that. Then at the end of the service when the deacon said, “Let us go forth in peace,” and the response would be “Thanks be to God,” Earline would really shout out “THANK YOU GOD!” Everyone else would of course be saying the quote the right way, and I thought you know she is full of the right spirit, and to hell with the order of the words.

Buford was another one of the residents who like Dorothy and Geraldine moved through our group homes and was ready for his own apartment. We had made the arrangements and he was getting ready to move. He was over in the office with Harry and me and we told him, “we’ll keep track of you, Buford, we’ll still be around, but is there anything you would like for us to do before you move?” He said, “Burn my file!” I thought, you know we could get into some trouble for doing that. If I do it, I’m not going to leave anything. Then I thought, well the hell with it – so we get in trouble, that’s what he wants. And it was so powerful.  We went out into the parking lot at St. Andrew’s.  I got some kerosene and candles and Harry, Buford and I burned that sucker up. Nobody ever said a word about it at the Mental Health Department – they didn’t know anything about it. It would never have occurred to me with my I.Q. to do that, but Buford knew exactly what he wanted. 

And the Work Grew

(The first expansion of the work of the St. Andrew’s Foundation came as a result of one of the residents. Cecil Cruise lived in one of the group homes and had befriended a young man in the community who in turn made the St. Andrew’s Foundation the beneficiary in his life insurance policy. I had heard the story when I worked at St. Andrew’s and I asked Francis to tell the story again.)

Joe Haney was a young man who was a student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He became a member of St. Andrew’s Church.  He was an acolyte, and Cecil [a resident at the group home] was also an acolyte, so Cecil befriended him.  Joe had cystic fibrosis, but nobody thought not to have incense [during the service].  This guy would just be choking and Cecil would say to him, “There’s nothing wrong with you – you’re going to be alright. You’ll get over this.” And Cecil would slap him on the back and encourage him. Well in time he died.  It bowled us over – here we get a notice from an attorney that Joe had left $50,000 to the St. Andrew’s Foundation. It was from an insurance policy. The only reason he had it was that to be a student at UAB, the students automatically got an insurance policy. I don’t think any insurance company would have given him a policy. He had reached more than the average age of a person with severe cystic fibrosis.

The apartment building that became
the Joe Haney House

I called his mother up and said to her, “I don’t feel very good about this, how do you feel?” and she said “That’s what he wanted to do. He wanted that money to go to the St. Andrew’s Foundation.” Then she told me about how Cecil had encouraged him and befriended him.  He didn’t specify how the money be used, but there was some kind of federal program, I guess the word you would use today is leverage, we could take that $50,000 and we got a loan at an incredibly low interest rate. So with that money we bought the apartment building and fixed it up.

(The apartment building was dedicated to Joe Haney with a plaque in his memory. There were four units in that apartment building and thus some of the residents, including Cecil, were able to move to another level of independence and still have supervision on the premises. It also allowed the St. Andrew’s Foundation to serve a larger number of clients.)

~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~

Where Sorrow and Beauty Dwell

My conversation with Father Walter reminded me of how fortunate I was that my life intersected with St. Andrew’s Church and the St. Andrew’s Foundation. It was there that I came to know more about what it means to be human. It was in that setting that we sought to recognize the worth of every individual, and to help those with disabilities live normally in the community. It was in that unique community at St. Andrew’s that all of us – residents, staff and volunteers alike – joined in an endeavor to celebrate the rhythms of life together.  There were some trying days, some times of frustration.  There were times when in a moment tears were elicited that came from a deep core where sorrow and beauty dwell together. It was real life. The kind of real life many of us for some reason try to avoid. We think we could save our life by avoiding those things that touch upon our own sorrow and brokenness, only to realize that “whosoever shall seek to save one's life, shall lose it.”

Time and Change

Many things change with time. The old houses where the St. Andrew’s Foundation began were bought by the hospital on the same block as it expanded its facilities. New homes were built on the same street. Also two new houses were acquired in the neighborhood to facilitate further independence for some of the residents.

Today, the work that was begun at the St. Andrew’s Foundation continues by way of the Jefferson County Association for Retarded Citizens. The ARC oversees operations of the group homes and supervised apartments.  In addition to the ARC, other places in town such as the United Cerebral Palsy Center of Greater Birmingham, Workshops, Inc., and the Glenwood Autism and Behavioral Health Center provide training and opportunity for a number of people. The need for services for people with disabilities has not diminished, and thankfully there are people and organizations who are trying to fill that need.


For more information:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...