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Bill McClellan: A community comes together to build group homes in Dutzow

St. Louis Post-Dispatch - 11/11/2023

Nov. 11—Nine years ago, I visited a group home — cottages, really — for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The headline for the resultant column was, "Storm clouds gathering over man's home of 46 years." The man was Terry Paridy. He was 71, and he lived in a cottage with five other men on the campus of Emmaus Homes near Marthasville in Warren County. He had lived there since 1968. He worked at a nearby sheltered workshop. He seemed comfortable with his life and surroundings. He smiled often and made sounds, but if there were words within those sounds, I could not make them out.

His older brother, Lee, served as interpreter. Lee had been the oldest of three, a year older than his brothers, Terry and Cody. The twins were born with intellectual disabilities. In the jargon of the times, they were "trainable," but not "educable." The family was working class and lived in Overland. As the twins grew up, their future seemed an unanswerable question.

The boys' father heard of Emmaus Homes. It was a godsend, a faith-based home for people with intellectual disabilities. It was in a rural setting on the grounds of a former seminary for the German Evangelical Church.

The twins thrived in their new environment. Cody died in 2002. Terry still had his roommates in his cottage, and, of course, his brother Lee, and Lee's wife, Sharon. They visited frequently. They took Terry on trips. They bought him a golf cart, and he rode around the campus.

In October 2013, a small team from the state's Division of Developmental Disabilities visited the campus of Emmaus Homes. The professional thinking had changed in the nearly five decades since Terry had arrived. The new "best practices" dictated that people like Terry were better off in smaller homes in the middle of a "normal" community. Emmaus Homes was considered a "congregate setting," too much like an institution.

I visited shorty after the state's team did. Terry seemed happy.

The storm came. The campus closed in 2014, and Terry was moved into a group home in Marthasville. He continued working at the sheltered workshop.

Many of the families and workers from Emmaus Homes lamented the loss of a place they had held so dear, but what could they do?

Surely something, thought Billie Kramme. She was, and is, a registered nurse. She had been program director at Emmaus Homes. She had a strong connection to the place.

"The Lord led me there," she said.

She grew up in a small town in Ohio. Her church youth group traveled to Emmaus Homes to do service work. She returned on her own to volunteer. After graduating from nursing school in Ohio, she began working at Emmaus Homes. She met her husband, Dennis, at a summer camp affiliated with Emmaus. He was a counselor.

The group of families and workers established Advocates for Community Choice. It was a 501(c) nonprofit that proposed a community that would resemble the former Emmaus Homes, but with a distinction. It would not be confined to people with disabilities. That would make it less of a "congregate setting." The people without disabilities would be carefully vetted. They would have to want to be part of the community.

Advocates for Community Choice had little money and no property.

"We had a dream," said Kramme. "How do you sell a dream?"

They found a perfect spot not far from their old campus. It was in Dutzow. It had once been a summer camp. It sat on 127 acres. It had a main building with a commercial kitchen. It had a gymnasium. It had three buildings suitable for housing. It had a beautiful chapel. The camp had been vacant for 10 years, so it needed some work. Also, it cost $2 million. That was $2 million more than Advocates had.

They sent out their first fund-raising letter at the end of 2019. A year later, a family in the Marthasville area contacted Advocates. This family was not in what could be called the disabled community. The family, which asked to remain anonymous, donated the necessary $2 million. Advocates had their campus. They called it Bethel Hills.

It needed fixing up.

The First Christian Church in Union funded repairs on the chapel. A couple funded work in the main building. Area residents, trades people, volunteered to renovate the housing. Other volunteers prepared meals for the workers.

The first 14 residents moved in this spring. Terry was among them. He is now 80. He lives in a duplex. He has a roommate who also has intellectual disabilities. His roommate's brother, a firefighter, lives next door with his daughter and her child. Those three do not have any intellectual disabilities.

Bethel Hills does not provide services. Those are provided to the residents by their insurance or the government. Social Security disability checks pretty much cover the rent for the people with disabilities.

Bethel Hills runs itself on a shoestring. It has a part-time administrator and a part-time accountant. It uses a grant to pay a part-time activities director. Some of its land is leased out to farmers. The main building with its kitchen will be available for rent. Same thing with the gymnasium.

On the day I visited last week, carpenters and plumbers were working on what will be the next housing unit. Eventually, the community will house around 70 people. Inside an old barn, I later chatted with Jeff Gildehaus, a retired heavy equipment mechanic and a full-time volunteer. I had the sense he could fix anything.

Lee and Sharon Paridy are volunteers. Lee is in charge of a gardening and groundskeeping team. He showed me some raised flower beds. "Those beds are raised so the residents can do some gardening without getting down on the ground. They were built by the son of the people who donated the 2 million. He's a volunteer."

The whole thing seemed like a miracle. I wondered how it was possible. One theory is that Emmaus, the nonprofit that once ran the community that Terry first lived in, has been operating in the area for more than 100 years, and its reputation for doing good has made the success of Bethel Hills possible.

"People have a good feeling about this because of Emmaus," said Sharon Paridy. "I'm always meeting people who say, 'I worked for Emmaus when I was in high school,' or they know somebody Emmaus helped."

Terry continued at the sheltered workshop when he was in the group home in Marthasville. He still works there. He recently celebrated his 50th anniversary of employment there.

On Sunday mornings, he pulls the rope that rings the chapel bell. Billie Kramme is on the keyboard.

The only storm clouds are of the natural kind.


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