Bethesda began in 1904 as a single location in Watertown, Wis. Contrary to the norms and attitudes of the time, Bethesda created a community of inclusion and support for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. By the 1960s, Bethesda’s Watertown Campus reached capacity, supporting more than 660 people. As societal attitudes began to shift, government assistance grew, legislation passed, medical advancements were made, and community supports and services became more accessible for people with developmental disabilities, Bethesda began supporting people in communities around the country. Over the years, many people supported on the Watertown Campus were able to move into homes in communities. Today, Bethesda supports nearly 1,800 people in 13 states—with 75 individuals living on the Watertown Campus.
A Look Back
In 1904, there were few options for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. As a result, adults and children with developmental disabilities were often confined in the family home or committed to large institutions. The accepted medical terminology at that time identified people with developmental disabilities as “idiots,” “imbeciles” and “morons.” Limited options and societal fears built barriers to community, isolating and segregating people with developmental disabilities.
Throughout its 108-year history, Bethesda Lutheran Communities has worked toward its mission: “To enhance the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities with services that share the good news of Jesus Christ.”
From the beginning, Bethesda understood that for people to live enhanced lives, they needed to be included in society. Therefore, Bethesda’s history is one of ever-increasing community engagement. Engaging communities to enhance lives marks the progress of Bethesda’s past and points the way toward its future.
A Farm in Wisconsin
In the early 1900s, a concerned group of Lutherans approached the Missouri Synod with a visionary and missionary request: establish a home to provide Christian support for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Bethesda Lutheran Communities began in April 1904, when five young people—Anna, Paul, Eddie, Lydia and Halmar—entered their new home in Watertown, Wis.
In 1909, having grown into a community of 85 people, Bethesda became a working farm. The farm provided jobs, food and income to sustain the ministry. Contributing to the whole community with their work on the farm, the men, women, boys and girls supported at Bethesda found purpose and value. The farm operation also helped develop connections with the Watertown community. For the next 50 years, farming was central to everyday life for people living on the Watertown Campus.
A Vision of Inclusion
Word spread about this growing Christian community that provided education and opportunity to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. By 1954, Bethesda was supporting 415 people on the Watertown Campus.
At this time, with the leadership of Bethesda Superintendent Rev. Dr. Clarence Golisch, Bethesda became a pioneer in community-based residential services. Contrary to the accepted norm of institutionalization, Golisch believed people with disabilities should have “normal channels of living as much as possible.” In 1961, Bethesda established its first group home in Watertown, allowing people to become full and active participants in the community.
The 1960s were a time of great cultural change in the United States. The attention drawn to civil-rights concerns had an unintended benefit to people with disabilities. Society was beginning to recognize the need for growth, learning and freedom for all people, including those with disabilities. During this time, people with disabilities, and low-income adults and children became eligible for a new government health program called Medicaid.
By the 1960s, Bethesda had grown to support 660 people at its Watertown Campus with another 450 people on a waiting list. During this time of overwhelming need, Bethesda relied on the generosity of volunteers from the community and local congregations. Volunteer auxiliaries emerged, providing assistance in manual arts, speech therapy, religious tutoring, physical therapy, reading and occupational therapy. Many helped in the laundry room, sewing room and mailroom. To support the growing number of people served, volunteers started the first Bethesda Thrift Shop in a garage in Watertown.
Independence and Choice
In 1975, Alexander L. Napolitano became Bethesda’s executive director. Napolitano’s leadership emphasized education and training programs, vocational opportunities, and greater community involvement. Bethesda was determined to discover and offer supports that increased independence and choice.
“We at Bethesda understand what independence requires. In order for there to be independence, there must be a range of choices and opportunities … and a lot of extra effort,” Napolitano said.
During this time, Bethesda expanded operations to support people in other parts of the country. Bethesda’s first out-of-state group home opened in Maryville, Mo., in 1977. From there, Bethesda expanded into communities in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Texas and Kansas.
In addition, many people supported on the Watertown Campus moved into group homes, often closer to family. “As we returned from our last visit to see our son, we worried about how much longer we would be physically able to make the trip to Wisconsin,” an elderly Kansas couple wrote to Bethesda. “Then your letter arrived, announcing your desire [for him to move] to the new home just two hours from us. What an answer to a prayer!”
By the 1980s, the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities saw another influx of change. Medical advancements improved the quality of life for people with disabilities. Legislation was enacted to guarantee public education to all children, regardless of disability. This empowered families to advocate for the civil rights of people with disabilities.
Its unwavering commitment to expand the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities positioned Bethesda as a nationally recognized leader in the field. Bethesda established the National Christian Resource Center in 1985. The Center served as a clearinghouse for people seeking information and advice about their personal situations, as well as referrals and resources for homes, churches and communities. The Center evolved into the Bethesda Institute, which provides a full array of resources for staff training, spiritual-life development, public policy and advocacy.
A Plan for Growth
By the time of Napolitano’s retirement in 1998, Bethesda had expanded from the Watertown Campus to 39 facilities, nine supported apartments and four service offices in 11 states. Because of Bethesda’s dedication to support people in the least restrictive and most independent community-integrated environments, the number of people supported at the Watertown Campus was reduced to 300.
F. David Geske, Ph.D., became Bethesda’s executive director in 1998 and CEO in 2003. After conducting an in-depth study and developing a comprehensive plan, Geske implemented a growth strategy for Bethesda, which included
- enhancing the Watertown Campus so people could live more independently;
- building a new corporate office to accommodate additional professional staff;
- expanding supports and services across the United States; and
- establishing partnerships to improve life for people with disabilities worldwide.
In 2001, Bethesda created an alliance with other Lutheran service providers from North America and Europe to form IMPACT, an international partnership. Its mission is to promote inclusive societies for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities around the world.
The year 2004 marked a century of service for Bethesda. Dedicated to an approach that treats all people with dignity and respect, Bethesda has worked to find inclusive places in the community for people with developmental disabilities to live, work and worship.
For Ken Larson, Dick Servatius and John Zidlicky, 2004 marked the year Bethesda helped make the dream of home ownership a reality. Larson and Servatius, previously supported on the Watertown Campus, sought a more independent life in their community. With the aid of an Illinois program that helped individuals with developmental disabilities purchase homes, Larson, Servatius and Zidlicky became the first people served by Bethesda to buy their own house.
As Bethesda continued its mission to enhance the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, it expanded its Christ-centered, community-based supports and services across the United States. In 2006, Bethesda more than doubled in size with the merger of Good Shepherd Communities. Through expansion, Bethesda began supporting people in Colorado, California, Oregon and Washington.
In 2011, Bethesda earned Network Certification in Basic Assurances® in the critical areas of health, safety and human security from the Council on Quality and Leadership, an international organization dedicated to improving the quality of life of people with disabilities, mental illness and older adults.
“This achievement endorses what we do, strengthens Bethesda’s leadership in the field of serving people with disabilities and reflects the work of Bethesda’s dedicated employees who enhance the quality of life for the people we support,” Bauer said.
Bethesda Lutheran Communities is a leading provider of person-centered, community-based supports and services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Operating about 300 program sites in 13 states, Bethesda supports nearly 1,800 people with employment and community-life programs and residential services. There are 75 people who live on the Watertown Campus. In addition, Bethesda ministry consultants nurture the spiritual life of more than 3,600 individuals with developmental disabilities. Bethesda is engaged in eight countries, serving 680 individuals and families.
For more than 40 years, people with disabilities have relied on a system of government assistance for essential supports and services. Today, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families have valid concerns about the sustainability of this system. Without government funding, people with disabilities are at risk of losing the critical supports and services they need to live independently in communities.
Although government funding is essential, it never covers the entire cost of the quality services provided by Bethesda. In the 2011-2012 fiscal year, government funding provided 65 percent of Bethesda’s total operating expenses. The 35 percent gap, representing $53.4 million, was substantially covered by a combination of contributions from generous donors, investment income and thrift store proceeds.
Each day, Bethesda fills that gap with the critical supports necessary for people with developmental disabilities to have the opportunity to make real choices, lead independent lives, gain meaningful employment, engage with their communities and live life with the freedom to reach their God-given potential. Together in Christ, together in mission, Bethesda Lutheran Communities engages communities to enhance lives.
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