published Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

A caring place: Chattanooga's Orange Grove Center marks its 60th anniversary

Travis Parks interacts with Soundbeam, a unique piece of technology that translates movement into music, in the Sharon Thorn Music Center at Orange Grove.
Travis Parks interacts with Soundbeam, a unique piece of technology that translates movement into music, in the Sharon Thorn Music Center at Orange Grove.
Photo by Jay Bailey.

23 — acreage of the Orange Grove campus

708 — people served in 2012, ages ranging from 8 to 86

750 — the number of full-time staff

146 — people in residential programs with live-in house managers

43 — individuals leasing their own homes with 24/7 staff support

128,323 — meals served to meet specific dietary needs in 2012

147 — vehicles run by the transportation department at Orange Grove

Source: Orange Grove Center

People told them to toss their kids aside. Institutions were better places for them, school officials and doctors would say. They needed straps and baby-sitting, little more.

In 1953, it was illegal to educate the disabled with state funds. Their medical needs were complicated, and most lived only into their 20s. Still, a handful of parents with children who struggle to move and speak and learn decided to push back.

All revolutions start with discontent.

The group ran an ad in a local newspaper to find other parents like themselves. They ran it three times until they got a response. Their cries got louder.

"Forty parents congealed," said Rick Rader, director of the Habilitation Center at Orange Grove. "The school system gave them an old dilapidated school [Orange Grove] to shut them up."

Now Orange Grove, which soon will celebrate its 60th anniversary, is a local and national model of care for the intellectually challenged. Its leaders from Chattanooga are on prominent national boards and committees, including the President's Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. They pushed successfully to raise the bar for newborn screening in Tennessee, were the first to adopt a code of ethics for direct support staff and co-founded the leading organization in sensory enrichment research.

Orange Grove leaders are helping set the tone on issues like dental care, vocational training and Alzheimer's treatments for the intellectually disabled.

"It's one of those things that might not get included in the promotional brochure for Chattanooga, but it adds a depth to this community and social sensitivity that larger communities can't claim," Mayor Ron Littlefield said.

Orange Grove, is a private, nonfprofit agency that offers a continuum of care from birth to death with schools, residential programs, group homes and jobs. Still, what it offers with a near $35 million budget isn't enough.

Desperate parents call the center from all over the country. Some have moved to Chattanooga to establish residency and qualify their children for treatment and education. Others have limited their careers to stay close to the center.

Orange Grove can accept only 700 individuals in its programs, but there is a waiting list of 7,000 for state-funded services in Tennessee and 5,717 in need of services in Georgia, Rader said.

"These are inordinate, inappropriate and shameful wait lists," he said.

And the demand won't be satisfied soon. Financing for disability services just isn't a priority for the state and federal government, especially when so many programs are at risk of funding cuts, Rader said. It's expensive to provide centers like Orange Grove. Some individuals rack up millions of dollars worth of treatment, he said.

The country is still wrestling with the question: Is it worth it?

Walking through the halls of Orange Grove will teach you a lot about the specific needs of the severely intellectually disabled. Chairs and contraptions clutter the entrances to classrooms. Each is specially designed, ranging in price from $800 to $1,500. Some are boards with straps. Others look like seats on a space station.

"We don't hide them," Rader said. "We are proud."

On the walls hang artwork and historic markers. There are bumper stickers from the days when parents fought for equal access for their children. "One of my kids goes to school. Why not the other?" "My kid has more chromosomes than yours."

Some individuals dance down the hallway with smiles that look permanent. A favorite area for people to congregate has kites hanging from the ceiling. A big red button turns fans on, making the kites buoy from side to side. In a music room, a man named Travis makes his own jazz with a motion sensor machine. The teacher plays piano to accompany him.

Still, many others are despondent. Moaning instead of speaking. A woman at lunch lurches and spits up her food. A female employee beside her cleans her mouth and spoons another bite.

A boy in one classroom watches visitors with wide eyes and slides on the floor to a swing where he'll sit. The teacher helps him up.

So many have complex medical histories. Rader speaks of a boy who compulsively eats. Another who compulsively drinks. Some are terrified of light and sounds and movements because of sensory disorders. And it can be difficult to determine the best treatments. How do you discover the cause of pain for someone who can hardly communicate? It takes research. And the fruits of research are all over Orange Grove.

Orange Grove built a room called Snoezelen to help those with sensory disorders. It has a ball pit, padded floors and tubes of bubbly water. Soft flashing lights and angelic music radiate. A fidgety child can swing in a sling and play with a fiber-optic shawl of lights. Children can watch the dark floor illuminate like nighttime stars.

A special dental clinic eases the nerves of patients and students. There is a movie screen on the ceiling and a jukebox that plays their favorite songs. Doctors, therapists, advocates, volunteers, teachers and psychologists are around each corner. The dentist is one of six in the United States who is fellowship trained on intellectual disabilities.

"We aren't a think tank," Rader said. "We are an action tank."

Students in Orange Grove's school have needs too complicated to be served in regular schools. Unlike public schools that push inclusion for special education students, the center provides a secluded environment for learning and treatment. Hamilton County Schools contracts with Orange Grove to provide services for 63 students -- a figure that continues to decline.

Margaret Abernathy, director of special education for the school district, said her department wouldn't maintain its relationship with the center if the programming wasn't on par.

"I think it's a very valuable program for the community," said Abernathy, who taught at Orange Grove for 13 years. "It serves a particular population of students with a level of disabilities that require a very restrictive setting."

Rader, who has worked to build Orange Grove's success and reputation for 15 years, clearly is thrilled about the center being on the cutting edge. He can rattle off accomplishments and risks rewarded in every area.

But not all care for the disabled is as comprehensive. Not all care is as informed and integrated.

Orange Grove officials want to expand its services and adult employment service if possible, if funding materializes. The center opened two intermediate care facilities off U.S. Highway 27 recently and has grown into Georgia.

"There is a misnomer, a mythology that society takes care of the least fortunate," Rader said. "They may get care, but they don't get good care."

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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