|Down the hill and just next door to the|
Intermediate Group Home was the Men's
|The Women's Group Home (left) sat next door to the|
Intermediate Group Home (right)
“It was almost like home…learning to live independent”
Dorothy Burdette enjoyed telling about her move from the Thomasville Adult Adjustment Center to the St. Andrew’s Foundation Group Homes in Birmingham. The group homes had been in operation for about a year by the time Dorothy arrived. The Reverend Francis Walter had managed to get the group homes established as a ministry of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in 1973, with the first residents arriving in 1974. You might say that Father Walter had come to be involved in the deinstitutionalization of Partlow by a unique series of happenstances, or you might agree, as he came to see it, that it was the Holy Spirit leading him.
Father Walter became involved with the work at the Wyatt House in Tuscaloosa while he was with the Selma Interreligious Project. The Selma Interreligious Project was “a coalition of 10 nationwide religious denominations serving as a spiritual presence in Selma in the aftermath of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ civil rights march.”(1) One of their civil rights attorneys was involved in the Wyatt vs. Stickney case that brought about deinstitutionalization, and subsequently the first group home for people with mental retardation was operated by the Selma Interreligious Project and was, in fact, located next door to their office. It was shortly after that experience when, as Francis Walter recalls, “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… [and] one thing led to another.”
Back in 1973, just as today, communities were resistant to the idea of group homes coming to their neighborhood. For so long, people with disabilities, mental retardation or mental illness had been kept away from society. They had either been shamefully locked up in someone’s attic or warehoused in large institutions so that most people in society never encountered them. Unfounded stories and myths abound about people with mental handicaps being a danger to the community.(2) Francis Walter describes his first encounter with two men at Partlow State School who were prospective residents of Alabama’s first group home, Wyatt House: “I had never been around identified mentally handicapped people. These two guys were in their fifties. 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.” (3)
When Francis Walter arrived in Birmingham to set up the St. Andrew’s Foundation group homes, there were two things, as he tells it, that went a long way toward alleviating the “not-in-my-back-yard” attitude that can hinder group home establishment. One was that he moved in to a house in the Southside neighborhood that was actually just up the street from the proposed group homes. By living there in the community he was able to get to know the neighbors, attend Neighborhood Association meetings, and educate the community about what group home living would be like and what the people would be like.
The other thing that helped with community acceptance was that Father Maurice Branscomb, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church was enthusiastic in his support and modeled an open-armed Christ-like acceptance of the prospective new neighbors saying, “it would be great, the parish would love to sponsor it, and the residents would be welcome to worship here [in our congregation].” (3)
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So the stage was set for Dorothy to continue her transition from institutional life to a normal life in the community. This is how she describes that move:
I was 44 years old when I came to Birmingham to live at the group home at St. Andrew’s Foundation on April the 8th, 1975. I had come up from Thomasville to visit for a day, then I was able to come back to live. There had been a fire at the group home I was supposed to come to, so I had to wait a little longer than they had planned. Geraldine and I were supposed to come at the same time, but I ended up coming about a year before Geraldine did. When I came here I started off at 1124 [the women’s group home]. I was in the women’s group home for about four months. During that time, Virginia and I started spending a couple of nights a week in the intermediate level group home until we were ready to move in.
They had a big party that first night I moved into the Intermediate Group Home at 1116 to welcome me and Virginia. There was me, Virginia, Anthony, then Cecil and John, and Buford, all of us living there at that time.
It was almost like home, living outside and everything, learning to live independent. I had learned to cook in Home Ec when I was in Thomasville before I came to live in the group home. I had been in Thomasville about two years, I guess. I had learned to iron when I was at Partlow.
I learned to use a washer and dryer in Thomasville. It was after I came to Birmingham that I learned to use a coin-laundry.
I was over there [at St. Andrew’s Foundation Group Homes] for a few years if I’m not mistaken. The first time I came, was that time I spent the day visiting the women’s group home.
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Next time we will hear from Dorothy about the learning opportunities she received while living at St. Andrew’s Foundation.
1. From “Undaunted by Threat of Storms More Than 200 Participate in 2012 Jonathan Daniels
Pilgrimage,” St. John’s Episcopal Church Newsletter, Decatur, Alabama, Aug 22, 2012, retrieved at“Not in My Backyard,” by Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez, Santa Clara University, at
3. Telephone interview with Francis Walter, December 1, 2012. For full interview, go to http://notdarkyet-commentary.blogspot.com/2012/12/an-interview-with-francis-walter.html