Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wednesdays with Dorothy: Moving into the Community

(This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)
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Dorothy Burdette
Photo taken near
the time she left Partlow
“I really enjoyed getting out of that place [Partlow] and coming down here. They were going to send me to Eufaula, but I’m glad they didn’t – I’m glad I come down here [to Birmingham].

We had to take Personal Hygiene when I was in Thomasville, and I mean it was something else. You had to get up, take a shower and wash your hair – then you had to pick out a nice dress and iron it before you put it on. You had to brush your teeth and they’d check your fingernails. I mean they really checked you out! Then we went to Home Ec. And that’s how I learned to cook when I was in Thomasville. They taught us how to keep house. They didn’t teach none of that at Partlow, they wouldn’t even show us how to use a can opener.

I was at Thomasville about a year to learn how to do things at home like iron and do laundry. They had a washer and dryer in the home where we were. 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 would like to digress briefly from Dorothy’s story to share some of my personal knowledge of the St. Andrew’s Foundation. It was a happy surprise when I came to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in 1984 and subsequently discovered the St. Andrew’s Foundation group homes. When I started working there, my first job was as a live-in home coordinator. During that time I experienced a shift in my understanding of life and a change in the way I viewed the world around me. Everything from politics to spirituality was affected by my experience of sharing life with people with intellectual disabilities. I would later learn that the renowned Catholic priest and writer, Henri Nouwen, experienced a similar path during the last ten years of his life.

Philosophical Beginnings

After coming on board at the St. Andrew’s Foundation, I began to learn more of its origins in my conversations with Rev. Francis Walter, executive director and founder. Francis talked about how he had been involved with the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. As his work in that field was winding down, some nuns told him about a different avenue for civil rights that they were learning about in the L’Arche Community founded by Jean Vanier.  It was at the very time that the federal courts had ordered Partlow State School to deinstitutionalize residents who were capable of more independent living and the State Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation was soliciting help in providing community based group homes for institutional residents to move to.  

What Francis Walter may have seen in the L’Arche community is probably best described by their own stated philosophy: “At the heart of L’Arche communities are relationships between people with and without intellectual disabilities. A respectful relationship between people who treat each other as of equal value provides security, allowing for growth, personal development and freedom to become more fully the people we want to be. Most importantly, mutual relationships foster the acceptance of each person as a unique and valuable individual, whatever his or her abilities or disabilities.” (1)

The upshot was that the nuns went to Mobile, Alabama to form a L’Arche community and  Francis Walter was inspired to create a place where the mentally handicapped could come and learn to live a more normal life, based on some of the principles exemplified by Jean Vanier.  Homes were acquired in the neighborhood near St. Andrew’s Church, and a charter was organized for the establishment of the St. Andrew’s Foundation.

Harry Hamilton Remembers the Early Days

Harry Hamilton was Francis Walter’s right-hand man for years at St. Andrew’s Foundation. He was the first Program Director and eleven years later became Executive Director when Francis resigned to become rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. Harry recalls that “Francis made the decision to speak to the Department of Mental Health about operating group homes after hearing a public service announcement on the radio while on the road between Montgomery and Tuscaloosa in late 1973. His work with the Freedom Quilting Bee had come to an end, and he was familiar with Wyatt House in Tuscaloosa (Alabama's first group home). He was also aware that the Episcopal Diocese owned some old Victorian homes within walking distance of St. Andrew's Parish, so he spoke with the Rector, Maurice Branscomb, and the Bishop and then spoke with Department of Mental Health in Montgomery. All agreed to the arrangement and he signed his first contract with DMH in February of 1974.”

Harry began as Program Director at the St. Andrew’s Foundation in May of that year. He tells of how they began screening residents from Partlow and that the first ones moved in to the new group homes in the Fall of 1974. “From the beginning,” according to Harry, “Francis Walter’s intent was to take advantage of the fact that the homes were in walking distance of the church so that it could become the hub of a community for folks who would need considerable support in adjusting to life outside an institution. And that is exactly how things worked out. The church, also the location of our administrative offices, was an easy walk from the homes, as were grocery stores, pharmacies, the bank, and the bus stop. It was not without obstacles, but for many years this little community worked just as intended and thrived on Birmingham's Southside.”

Harry also recalls his first meeting with Dorothy Burdette: “After about a year of taking residents only from Partlow, we began screening people who had been moved from Partlow to Thomasville Adult Adjustment Center (an old Cold War radar site in our front line defense against a Cuban missile strike). Dorothy was among the first people screened from there. When Edsel Massey and I went down to pick her up we arrived late in the day and spent the night at the Jefferson Davis Motel, where Dorothy happened to be in vocational training at the time. So we had a chance to ask her supervisor a bit about her before actually meeting her the following day. Dorothy often talked about that first meeting and took pride in the fact that her supervisor hated to see her go. She also liked to tell the story of how she misunderstood Edsel's name as "Ediker" and she laughed with each retelling as if it was the first time.” (2)

The Concept of Normalization

Harry Hamilton may not have been present on the day of creation, but he arrived very soon on the scene and was instrumental in the formation of the unique training and habilitation community that characterized St. Andrew’s Foundation. Under Harry’s guidance, the training programs were put into place that would seek to create a normal community life for people who had endured institutional life for years. The underlying principle for the work at St. Andrew’s Foundation was normalization as set forth by seminal thinker and advocate, Wolf Wolfensberger

Wolfensberger was Director of the Training Institute for Human Service Planning, Leadership and Change Agentry at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York until his death in 2011 at the age of 76. He was a strong academic who greatly influenced the field of mental retardation and social services through such writings as The Principle of Normalization. Normalization has been described as “the acceptance of people with disabilities, with their disabilities, offering them the same conditions as are offered to other citizens. It involves an awareness of the normal rhythm of life – including the normal rhythm of a day, a week, a year, and the life-cycle itself. It involves the normal conditions of life – housing, schooling, employment, exercise, recreation and freedom of choice. This includes ‘the dignity of risk’, rather than an emphasis on ‘protection’.”(3)  Part of the dynamic of Wolf Wolfensberger’s work and achievement was that he drew inspiration from Jean Vanier and was involved in establishing the L’Arche community in Syracuse.

So it was a convergence of civil rights, a court order, and the spiritual/ philosophical insights of Jean Vanier that brought about the experiment that was the St. Andrew’s Foundation on Birmingham’s Southside. Next time we will hear more from Dorothy about her experiences there. As her story unfolds, we will also hear from Father Francis Walter about the beginnings of the St. Andrew's Foundation.

References cited:

1.  From the L’Arche Community website at 
2. Harry Hamilton, personal communication, 11/25/2012.
3. Quote from “Misconceptions on the principle of normalisation,” Bank-Mikkelsen, Address to  
    IASSMD Conference, Washington, D.C., 1976, referenced in Wikipedia article on Normalization at

Other internet references:

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