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MRDD facing the challenge

Four decades ago, there were many options for a parent who had a child who had a physical or a mental handicap. They could raise the child with very little help or opportunities or they could hand the child over to the state and they would spend their lives in an institution.

A group of parents decided that they wanted more for their children than being either ignored or raised by the state and began helping their children themselves. They began teaching the children and began demanding services for their kids. Eventually, legislators agreed that these children should have a chance at school, medical help and job training.

The beginning

“We didn’t just become an MRDD on our own 40 years ago,” said Paul Mollett, the superintendent of the Lawrence County Mental Retardation Developmental Disabilities. “But here was a foundation for what we have become.”

In the late 1960s, a group of Lawrence County parents decided that if there was no one to help them, they would do it themselves.

It was desperation on their part. Mollett said they formed to have activities for their children and some emotional support.

“It was mothers mainly, they met daily to find programs to help their children,” Mollett said.

He said parents had to train and teach their child with disabilities themselves or they were told it was best to turn the child over to the state to care for.

A tough choice

“Many new mothers were told don’t even bother taking the child home, there were no community services,” Mollett said, adding

children with disabilities could go to public schools but there were no programs for their needs. “The school system just wasn’t equipped. I even remember seeing a card where a superintendent had the option to waive the child from being educated.”

Children with disabilities from this area were taken to the Gallipolis Development Center where many spent their entire lives.

With no educational programs and only a couple of workers per ward, it was warehousing people rather than helping them.

“There were no educational opportunities, there were no residential opportunities,” Mollett said. “There were really no services, parents felt isolated and alone, frightened. Imagine someone who had to put their child in an institution or try to keep the child at home and have no resources. You were going to lose no matter which way you went.”

With a group of about 40 kids, the parents began teaching them and they used station wagons to transport the kids. They started a school in a donated building that eventually became known as the Open Door school in Ironton with volunteers teaching both children and adults.”

A new hope

In 1967, the state passed legislation which created a MRDD program in all 88 of Ohio’s counties.

“We took over what was a well-functioning organization and group of services,” Mollett said. “There was a school, there was transportation. Credit has to be given to those early pioneers who built it with virtually no money.”

As years passed, the MRDD programs expanded and places like the Gallipolis Development Center became as Mollett termed a “whipping boy.”

“The tide turned,” he said. “People said there shouldn’t be a GDC. They had bad reputations, fairly or unfairly. But I was always appalled by warehousing.”

The programs began to focus on the needs of the individual and bringing back to the community.

“I think some of the first families that enrolled here, probably felt like they were being listened to for the first time in their lives,” said Sarah Diamond Burroway, has been the spokesperson for MRDD for the past seven years. “The answer may not have been a strong ‘yes,’ it may have been ‘well, we haven’t crossed that bridge before, but let’s investigate and see if we can make it happen.”

Four decades

While the Lawrence County MRDD isn’t doing anything special to mark the 40th anniversary of their founding, they remain focused on their mission.

There are programs to help their 500 or so clients through all stages of life with pre-school, elementary, high school and job training.

“We think it’s a pretty big deal,” he said. “I’ve been here for 24 years but it doesn’t feel like it’s the same place. There have been huge changes.”

For one, the Gallipolis Development Center now only houses about 150 residents.

“When I came into this field, the GDC had about 2,000 people,” Mollett said.

Locally, Open Door is in the old Lambard School with certified teachers and programs geared towards the individual’s abilities. In 1980, Tri-State Industries was opened to give adults opportunities to work. Tri-State Industries have contracts with big and small companies doing things like packaging goods to producing products to assembling goods and sending them worldwide.

In 1994, Lawrence County Early Childhood Center was built in South Point. MRDD also offers residential treatment for those who need in-home help.

“To be able to provide services for so many people with different challenges, that wouldn’t have even been dreamed of when this program started,” Mollett said. “I think our services have been responsive and I think we have exceeded expectations. Lawrence County has always been a quiet little island of excellence. We are about our consumers, not buildings.”