A Man About Town

Connecting with a Michigan Community for 30 Years

Charles Schroeder

It does not take Charles Schroeder long to turn a stranger intoCharles Schroeder a friend.

“Charles has an infectious personality and a great sense of humor,” said Gale Howe, a longtime friend.

Schroeder, 63, receives services from Bethesda Lutheran Communities. He expands his network of friends by frequenting area businesses, joining social groups, and attending festivals and concerts. He has become a popular resident of Frankenmuth, Mich., where Bethesda has supported people with intellectual and developmental disabilities for more than 30 years.

“Everyone is my friend,” Schroeder said. “I just haven’t met them all yet.”

For much of Schroeder’s life, Bethesda has guided his moves toward independence and civic engagement. His journey began in the early 1960s on Bethesda’s Watertown Campus in Wisconsin.

Emily Young, a longtime Bethesda direct support professional (DSP) in Watertown, still recalls Schroeder’s outgoing personality.

“Charles was part of a small group of men who gathered daily to drink coffee and chat,” Young said. “He was well known because he liked to move around and talk to people.”

As Schroeder gained new skills through vocational opportunities and life-skills training, his independence blossomed. In 1966, he moved from the Watertown Campus to a nearby Bethesda group home as the organization prepared him for a move to Michigan, his home state.

“There was a lot of training involved,” Young said. “We taught skills in the areas of money, food preparation, safety, shopping, socialization, cleaning, hygiene—all the necessary things to help people live more independently.”

The Watertown community was the classroom for this training, and Schroeder regularly displayed his eagerness to meet new people, Young recalled. “If he saw someone new, he would say ‘Hi, how are you?’ He didn’t care who you were, he just cared about people.”

In 1982, Roger and Ann Finta, a husband and wife team, were hired by Bethesda to provide support at the Frankenmuth group home. They worked with a committee in Watertown to determine which people from the Watertown Campus and area group homes were prepared to make the move. Schroeder was one of the Fintas’ top candidates.

“Charles was a good learner and he had social skills. We believed that, with continued support, he was ready for the next level of independence,” Ann Finta said.

Family in Frankenmuth

A new start

New Frankenmuth residents in 1982In July of 1982, six people with intellectual and developmental disabilities became Frankenmuth residents. Cora Anderson, Shirley Wilber, Leroy Macholz, Lydia Stewart and Schroeder all knew each other from living on the Watertown Campus. George Fischer moved into the Bethesda home after living with his parents. The Fintas shared the new house, built by Bethesda, and provided 24-hour support.

From the start, the group functioned as a family. Schroeder especially looked up to Fischer, and the two became fast friends.

The group home was located on property secured from St. Lorenz Lutheran, a congregation instrumental in bringing Bethesda to Frankenmuth.

St. Lorenz became the church home of the Bethesda group. Schroeder’s engaging manner broke down barriers quickly.

“Charles knows no stranger,” said the Rev. Dale Ahlschwede, pastor emeritus of St. Lorenz. “He isn’t new to a group very long and isn’t afraid to express what is in his heart. Charles loves to kid around, but he can also be very deep.”

The congregation embraced the Bethesda group by creating the Breakthrough Bible Class. After 30 years, the weekly gathering continues to bring together more than 40 people with and without developmental disabilities.

St. Lorenz plays an important role in Schroeder’s faith and social life. Church events keep his calendar filled. In addition to Breakthrough, he attends Bible studies and is a member of the Lutheran Laymen’s League and Fellowship of Christian Men.

“I pray all the time,” Schroeder said. “I miss my friends who are up in heaven and I think about them every day. I know it is perfect where they are.”

Community engagement

After building strong support networks through the church and at their home, Schroeder and the others supported by Bethesda began to seek additional community engagement.

For Schroeder, finding a job was critical. Since moving to Frankenmuth, he has worked at a grocery store and several restaurants. Bethesda collaborates with SVRC Industries, a Saginaw, Mich., vocational services provider for people with developmental disabilities. In 2006, Schroeder took on a new challenge when, through SVRC, he began working weekends at Zehnder’s Splash Village, a hotel and waterpark on the outskirts of Frankenmuth. Each Saturday and Sunday, Schroeder works a four-hour shift, sorting and folding towels. “He has been one of my top producers,” Joyce Lee, SVRC program director, said. “If I could clone him, it would be great.” Schroeder, who fondly recalls his time working in the laundry room on the Watertown Campus, finds satisfaction in having a job and making money.

“I love to work and talk to my friends there,” Schroeder said. “I love earning a paycheck.”

Move to independence

In the late 1990s, George Fischer, Schroeder’s close friend and housemate for more than 15 years, took the bold step to move from the group home into an apartment. Fischer’s decision was an inspiration to Schroeder.

Months after moving into his apartment, Fischer died following a battle with cancer.

“Independence had been so important to George,” Finta said. “That made the others in the group home, particularly Charles, start to think about what they wanted out of their living situations.”

With the assistance of Bethesda staff, Schroeder took a determined step toward independence by deciding to move into an apartment. His only requirement was that the apartment be within walking distance of church, the group home and the library. The move from 24/7 to intermittent support went smoothly for Schroeder.

The transition into an apartment was seamless thanks to the tightknit nature of Frankenmuth.

“This is a special place. People are friendly. Th ey look out for each other. If Charles needed help, he would get it,” said Gale Howe, a friend Schroeder knows from church.

Their friendship developed under “stormy” circumstances.

“One Ash Wednesday, a snow storm hit. It was so bad outside that you couldn’t see anything. We took Charles home after the service and we have been friends ever since,” Howe said. “We have dinner together often, celebrate birthdays and see each other at church. Once you get to know his name, Charles is your friend.”

According to Finta, Schroeder’s move to the apartment spurred personal growth and a greater sense of freedom. “Charles didn’t like being bound to votes about what to do, which is often necessary in group homes, based on staffing and regulations,” Finta said. “We were confident we could support him to live independently and he has made the most of it.”

Bethesda’s role

Nearly 12 years after moving into the apartment, Charles talking with Joyce Lee Schroeder receives support from a Bethesda staff member who is anything but a stranger. Every Wednesday, Jayme Finta, Bethesda direct support professional and daughter of Ann and Roger Finta, works with Schroeder to keep up with the details of independent living.

“Charles and I work together on all sorts of things,” Jayme Finta said. “Each day is diff erent. I might help him with his bills, take him grocery shopping and schedule a doctor appointment.”

Schroeder loves his personal routine and the choices afforded to him by living in an apartment. An avid walker, Schroeder is recognized throughout Frankenmuth for his gregarious personality.

“I see him all around town,” Howe said. “No matter where I see him, he is always busy chatting and laughing.”

Living life to the fullest

Charles visiting Satow DrugsSchroeder’s favorite places to go are less than a mile from his home and include a pharmacy, diner, library, bank, grocery store and church. In the summer, he enjoys the city’s many festivals, biergartens and concerts. No matter where Schroeder goes, he is warmly received with a chorus of “Hey, Chuck” and “Hi, Charles.”

Schroeder frequently visits Bethesda staff and people supported by the organization, including Lydia Stewart, who made the move with him from Watertown.

“He stops by all the time,” Ann Finta said. “He loves seeing his friends and within a moment of arriving, he always has the whole group laughing.”

Schroeder cherishes the independence that defines his life in Frankenmuth. It is what drives him to venture out daily for the chance to meet new people and enjoy treasured friendships.

“Frankenmuth is my home. I love where I am living and my friends,” Schroeder said. “I want to be here as long as I can.”

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