Twenty-two years ago, then Team Leader Cary Kelly called the pastor of Skowhegan Federated Church to ask if he could lead a memorial service honoring one of the people that we supported.
Reverend Mark Tanner came out to the facility in Pittsfield and never really left. He’s been giving his time, his talent, and his friendship to the SKILLS family ever since.
“The first time I went to visit with him we knew he was the one,” said Cary Kelly. “He relates so well with people.”
Mark took the time to learn about the person they were remembering and he helped SKILLS do something they’d never done before. They had the funeral home bring the casket into the facility. They had an open-casket celebration of life. It was a cathartic experience for staff and participants alike.
Since then, Mark has done about 22 services for members of the SKILLS family, and he has presided over events like the Annual Memorial Picnic for years.
He donates his time and his talent. He says that in return SKILLS has helped him grow as a person and as a pastor.
“You come here and you truly see beyond yourself. You go in and you do these services for all these people and after a while you develop a relationship.” Mark said.
“The relationship that I have with Cary Kelly is way beyond the program,” Mark says. “It’s a friendship. I have relationships with lots of the folks here.”
That’s easy to see. It’s impossible to talk to Mark without someone coming over to say hello, shake his hand, or give him a hug. He’s clearly happy to be here and the SKILLS family is happy to have him.
“I love the program, I love the people here. How can you not feel good coming in here?”
The Skills Memorial Picnic is like a family reunion. There are many faces you recognize and a few you don’t. There’s music and games and, of course, food. Lots and lots of food.
In the SKILLS Memorial Park behind Pittsfield Community Supports, people and greet each other with smiles and hugs. Sandra Witham, Lillian Haynes and Janet Brousseau, who regularly volunteer at PCS Music Jams, entertain the crowd with music. A few people even get up and sing along with them.
Recognizing those who give
As much fun as all of this is, the picnic is more than an opportunity to bring the family together. It’s a time of recognition and remembrance. Executive Director Stephanie Johnson thanked staff for their hard work in organizing the picnic and supporting the SKILLS community all year round.
Reverend Mark Tanner, who has served the SKILLS family for more than 20 years, spoke to the group: “The passion that you bring to
your work is so important and you are making a difference in the lives of the people that you work with on a day to day basis,” he
“You need to be congratulated for the time, for the talent, for the love that you bring.”
To the people SKILLS supports he said, “Thank you for the difference that you make in the communities in which you live.”
Stephanie recognized Mark as an official member of the SKILLS family with a SKILLS baseball cap and thanked him for all his years of service with a plaque.
“This will hang in my office as a reminder every day of the love and appreciation I have for all of you,” Mark said.
Remembering those we have lost
The picnic is also a time to remember those we have lost. Mark read the names of those who had passed on since the last picnic.
People we supported:
Dorothy Benson Robert
“Bob” Guenette Judy Poland
Mary Jane “MJ” Gourley
Edith Baird Blake Peter
Friends and Family:
Elaine Sinclair – Parent of a
person that we supported
Nancy Holt – KVCAP Volunteer
Ed Beaulieu – Former Employee
Then he led the group in a brief prayer before counting down to the release of nearly 250 balloons.
Reinforcing our connections
Lunch is served and the music starts again. This time Crystal Rae and her father Wes Hupper take the stage. The dunk tank is put to good use as the people we support line up to dunk staff members.
With so many facilities across central Maine, it’s rare that everyone gets together like this. Here, old friends meet and the newest staff members come to understand how big the SKILLS family really is.
“When everybody gets together, you realize how many people there are,” said Ann, a staff member who joined the team at Petra house in March.
Above all, the picnic is about celebrating relationships. “Many of the relationships we have do last a lifetime,” Stephanie said.
In one of those gorgeous rambling old farm houses on the top of a hill in St. Albans, six housemates share living space, chores and leisure time. The house is called Shared Living.
In addition to private bedrooms, Shared Living has a living room, a dining room, several bathrooms, a kitchen and a billiard room. The billiard room often hosts parties attended by residents of other homes in the SKILLS network.
Outdoors there’s a long porch perfect for relaxing on, horseshoe pits – the site of many friendly competitions, and a fire pit to sit around during those serene summer nights.
Meet the Shared Living Housemates
The housemates include Mike and his wife Susanna, who moved down in mid-May. Mike and Susanna are the first married couple ever to live at Shared Living.
The house has always been co-ed, so it’s not much different having a married couple in the group.
The couple did add to the general liveliness of the house by bringing their cats, Venus and Luke, to live with them.
Living, Working and Relaxing Together
“It’s a very busy place,” says team leader Tammy Waltman. “We try to have them be as independent as possible.”
In groups of two or three or more, the housemates do their groceries, visit the library, play pool and work together to accomplish chores. A few of them love yard sales, and go searching for great finds on the weekends.
Those who want to also attend Self Advocacy Meetings, where they get together with other people in the SKILLS network to brainstorm solutions and learn new skills.
“We stand up for ourselves, like if we have problems to help cope with it,” Mike says. “I think it’s a good idea.”
In addition to the six residents, one or two staff members are always at the house. Living with so many people is a lot like living with an extended family. Everyone has their own space, but they come together for meals and chores.
It’s a situation that housemate Leslie knows well. He is the only boy from a family of 14 children.
Susie (not to be confused with Mike’s wife Susanna) has been at Shared Living the longest — 17 years. Her room is decorated with Special Olympics trophies, yard sale finds, and enough pink to make any princess feel at home. She says she loves Shared Living.
“They’re all pretty independent, pretty self-sufficient,” says Tammy. “It’s more prompting than hands on. Everybody gets along rather well.”
You drive down a quiet side road in Hinckley and spot a building in the middle of an open green field. This is Central Maine Community Supports, SKILLS facility specializing in physical therapy.
The two wings of the building hug the corner of a small parking lot. It’s quiet. Peaceful. Serene.
And then you step inside.
Inside everything is in motion. Program participants rock in chairs, kneel on floor mats and gesture as they laugh and smile. Many of them are nonverbal, but Team Leader Shelly says it’s easy to tell what they want.
“They definitely let you know, but it’s subtle,” Shelly says.
She and other staff don’t need words to understand the wants and needs of the 22 people they support. They pay attention to vocalizations, body language and fleeting expressions.
About half of the participants come from Klearview Manor, a residential home outside the SKILLS network. Most others live at home and travel to CMCS for a few hours each day Monday through Friday.
Creating Personal Success
The major draw for most participants is physical therapy. CMCS is the only local facility with the equipment these participants need.
They have supine standers, standing boxes, sit to stand equipment and more.
“Our goal is to help them succeed,” says staff member Tara.
Success is different for each person. For some it’s remembering to respect personal space. For others it’s getting a limb to relax enough that it can bend. Each participant has a personalized physical therapy plan designed to meet their needs.
For some participants, simply getting out of their wheel chairs and into a recliner is a form of therapy. It helps keep muscles from tensing into position and induces relaxation.
Staff members are everywhere. They use mechanical lifts to help participants into and out of their chairs. They assist them in the bathroom. Most importantly, they keep everyone safe.
At CMCS there is no down time. “You’re tired when you go home, but fulfilled,” Shelly says.
As we explained in this post last week, in the 1950’s there were very few options for people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities. Families that wanted to keep their loved ones out of institutions were basically on their own.
Except that some families banded together. They formed organizations like the Upper Somerset Association for Retarded Children and the Greater Waterville Association for Retarded Children.
The Impact of Dr. Ervin
One of the co-founders was Dr. Edmund N. Ervin. You may recognize his name. Dr. Ervin was a pediatrician who helped developed health clinics and other facilities serving children with developmental disabilities. He lent his name to a couple of facilities in Maine including the Edmund N. Ervin Pediatric Center and our own Ervin Community Supports.
Developmental disabilities was a cause close to his heart, because his third daughter, Hilary Elizabeth was challenged by them. She was among the first program participants at the Ken-a-Set Adult Training program, which eventually became Ervin Community Supports.
In 1971 the Upper Somerset and Greater Waterville organizations merged, forming Ken-a-Set. While other facilities closed and merged around it, Ervin Community Supports remained.
Participants worked in the old Ken-a-Set thrift store. They also made birdhouses and wind chimes which they sold to help fund their program.
Ervin had its share of trials. Once during a storm a tree fell down, knocking a chimney through the roof of the building. The program was closed for the day and participants were sent to other facilities temporarily. They pumped water out of the basement for several days.
There’s even a rumor that the old building was haunted. Staff members tell stories of times when objects in locked rooms were moved or strange smells filled the building.
A Ervin Community Supports, A New Building
Eventually, the program had to move. The building was just too old to maintain and needed constant repairs. So in 2015, soon after Ken-a-Set and Sebasticook Farms merged to become SKILLS, Inc. Ervin Community Supports moved down to the old Social Security Administration Building on Front Street.
The bigger, brighter space meant they had room for more participants. The participants say they like the change. One participant, Terri, said she especially appreciates the new people she’s met thanks to the merger.
Terri has been with SKILLS for most of her adult life, and fondly remembers both Dr. Ervin and his daughter Hilary.
In the 1950’s there were very few options for people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities. There were no day programs, no waiver homes and no programs offering job training skills.
In fact, many people with intellectual disabilities lived in large dormitories at Pineland Hospital and Training Center. They were calleds “patients.”
Families that wanted to keep their loved ones out of institutions were on their own.
And so, all over Maine, groups of families banded together to create a framework of support for their loved ones, especially their younger children. One such group founded The Sebasticook Association for Retarded Children, which became the governing body of the Marie Bradford School on Hartland Avenue in Pittsfield.
Getting Access to Education
At the time, public schools did not offer any educational programming to children with intellectual disabilities. The Marie Bradford School was one of many schools that were created especially for children with developmental challenges.
Over the years, the children grew. Public schools started introducing special education classes. By then the children of the Marie Bradford School were too old to attend. Their parents wondered what would happen to them now. There were no sheltered workplaces, no supported employment. Nobody had a workable solution for the parents of these now-adult children.
They closed the Marie Bradford School, which was now redundant, and reorganized themselves as Sebasticook Farms, a support program for adults in the area.
Creating Employment Opportunities
The group purchased Lawrence Acres in Saint Albans. They turned the big farm house into a home where people could live, work and be a part of the local community. The need was great and they quickly expanded their network by purchasing two more buildings, Athens Group Home and Independent Living in Saint Albans. State funds were hard to come by, so the board members depended mostly on loans and some fundraising to get the job done.
Families wanted their now adult children to have the skills and independence to succeed and thrive in the world. Residents and attendees of the day program learned to garden and sold vegetables at a produce stand. Some made sample books for Irving Tanning. Others started a small workshop to build wooden pallets.
With no model to follow, Sebasticook Farms grew by trial and error. Some activities proved too complicated or dangerous, like the attempt at logging. Others quickly proved their suitability. The workshop became a sawmill, which eventually grew into Sebasticook Lumber.
Though it was sold off in 2015, the lumber mill still employs workers with developmental disabilities.
Evolving to Survive
By the early 2000’s dozens of programs like Sebasticook Farms had popped up all over Maine. The state was looking for ways to minimize costs and put pressure on these organizations to consolidate.
“You could almost see the handwriting on the wall, you had to merge or you were going to be gone,” says Jack Dyer, who has served as Chairman of the Board for most of his 40 years with the organization.
Jack and the board knew they needed to merge if they wanted to keep doing the work they’d started all those years ago. They entered into talks with several organizations in the area. In the end, they brokered a merger with Ken-a-Set.
Ken-a-Set shared similar values and a familiar origin story. It formed in 1971 when the Upper Somerset Association for Retarded Children merged with the Greater Waterville Association for Retarded children.
Almost 30 years later, on July 1, 2005, Ken-a-Set and Sebasticook Farms became SKILLS, Inc. The word SKILLS was an acronym for “Somerset, Kennebec, Individualized, Living and Learning Supports” but it was also a one word mission statement. The goal of the newly minted SKILLS was to support adults with developmental disabilities to build the personal, social, and job skills they needed to thrive in the world.
There’s no more serene place in the entire SKILLS universe than Sand Road Waiver Home in Newport. The facility is home to two men: Errol (66) and Karl (63).
Most week days, Karl participates in a day program, but Errol prefers to stay at home enjoying his retirement. Before he retired he used to shovel snow and split wood. Now he spends a good deal of his time feeding the birds, keeping the bird feeders on the patio stocked year round, and painting puffy paint designs on the bottom of his socks.
He and Karl go to the bowling alley for dinner every Friday. There they eat hot wings (Errol’s favorite) and catch up with people from other programs, including staff members who have moved out of Sand Road and into other facilities.
Errol is a fixture in the Sand Road Waiver home. He’s been here longer than his roommate and most staff.
The five staff members: Rick, Chris, Crystal, Pat and their newest edition, Mark, support Errol and Karl with the help of their team leader. They’re a diverse bunch. Chris is studying to be a minister. Pat is a former commercial fisherman. Mark was a radio host in Virginia.
What they have in common is a team mentality.
“Everybody is willing to help each other out,” says Tammy Waltman, former team leader. “There’s a lot of consistency.”
Making that happen takes flexibility, a willingness to learn, and dedication. During the big February snow storm staff had no problem keeping the steps shoveled off and the exits clear, but white-out conditions made shift changes a challenge.
Crystal pulled a double shift, staying with Errol and Karl from 7 in the morning until 9 at night.
Staff outside the team offered to help as well. Diana took the overnight shift so Crystal could go home and get some sleep.
“I think the staff is really dedicated,” Tammy says. “Anybody that’s dedicated loves their job.”
It’s hard not to love Sand Road Waiver. The team and the residents are clearly comfortable in the home and with each other.
SKILLS, Inc. is happy to announce that as a result of the generous support of a local family, whose family member has attended the LC Dill Center for 17 years, the Skowhegan Thrift Store and the work component at the LC Dill Center will remain open at least until the end of April 2016 and hopefully beyond. Due to outreach of this family, funds have been raised from our local community members via a “Go Fund Me” page, as well as major donors that include local businesses.
Over the next several weeks, SKILLS, Inc. will work closely with the family and the donors to continue fundraising and to determine the long term viability of these efforts. SKILLS, Inc. truly appreciates the partnership of all parties involved.