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Consortium travels to Erie & Venango Counties to collect first-person histories
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Western Pennsylvania Disability History and Action Consortium

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Recording the History of Institutionalization and Community Living

Update on legislation to close Polk and White Haven Centers


JANUARY 2020 NEWS


By TINA CALABRO


In December, 2019, members of the Consortium’s Multimedia Histories project traveled to L’Arche Erie and Polk Center in Venango County to record first-person accounts of their role in the history of disability services and support.
 
The Consortium was welcomed to L’Arche Erie by executive director Vicki Washek. L’Arche Erie, founded in 1972, was the first such community in the United States. It is part of the international L’Arche movement that currently numbers 154 communities in 38 countries. Among others, U.S. cities that have L’Arche communities are Cleveland, Boston, and Syracuse, NY.
 
The L’Arche mission, articulated by the late Jean Vanier in France in 1964, was to provide a spiritually-centered alternative to the forced segregation of institutions of that era. The vision for L’Arche was that people with and without disabilities would share their lives together. The French name translates to “ark,” a reference to Noah’s ark.

Two leaders from L'Arche Erie being recorded by videographers.Guy Caruso, Consortium steering committee member and Western Coordinator for Temple University Institute on Disabilities, conducted a video interview with Father George Strohmeyer, who co-founded L’Arche Erie with the late Sister Barbara Ann Karsznia, OSB.
 
Mary Anne Zarnick joined Father George in telling the story of L’Arche. She has been a working member of the L’Arche community for 43 of its 47 years.
 
The path to founding L’Arche Erie began when Father George and Sister Barbara separately heard Jean Vanier speak in person and were moved by his spiritual message. Both were faculty members at Gannon University – Father George in sociology and theology, and Sister Barbara in counseling.
 

Guy Caruso of Temple University Institute on
Disabilities interviews 
Father George Strohmeyer
and Mary Ann Zarnick at L’Arche Erie.
 


To educate themselves about starting a L’Arche community they visited the original L’Arche in Trosly, France, and the Daybreak L’Arche community in Toronto (the first L’Arche community in North America), founded in 1969.  They also observed contemporary practices in disability support and services when visiting Polk State School and Hospital in nearby Venango County and volunteering at Erie’s Barber Center, which had distinguished itself as a leading provider of services for people with disabilities.
 
On November 22, 1972, they launched L’Arche Erie with four core members who were former residents of Polk Center. Father George served as pastoral leader until the mid-1990s and lived in the community for more than a decade. Sister Barbara worked for the community until her death in 1982.
 
Today, L’Arche has 29 core members living in seven homes in Erie. Prayer and worship are part of each L’Arche home and community members come together twice a week at the L’Arche center on West 12th Street for meals and fellowship.
 
Two of the original core members remain connected to the community today. The Consortium plans to record interviews with these two individuals later this year.

****

The next stop for the Multimedia Histories team was Polk Center in Venango County to record interviews with Executive Director Shirley Pickens and Mary Sauer, curator of Polk’s Memorabilia Room.
 
Polk Center, founded in 1897 as an "Institution for the Feeble-Minded,” was once the largest institution in Pennsylvania for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. By 1954, the institution housed more than 3,400 people. 
 
In the 1970s concerns about overcrowding and other conditions, preference for community-based services, and advocacy for the rights of people with disabilities began to reverse the use of institutional placement. Hundreds of residents transitioned to community living.

Today, about 175 residents live on Polk’s 2,000-acre campus. In August, 2019, the Pennsylvania Department Human Services announced plans to close the 123-year-old facility Polk after a process of transitioning current residents to other residential options is complete.

Field of crops in front of large institutional building at Polk State Center with surrounding buildings on summer day.


Polk State Center in Venango County. For use only with permission by
Western Pennsylvania Disability History & Action Consortium and Charlie Uhl, photographer


On January 15, 2020, the state senate passed a bill placing a five-year moratorium on the closure of Polk and another institution slated for closure, White Haven in Luzerne County. Passage of this bill is pending as it returns to the Senate for concurrence. The bill will then be sent to Governor Wolf, who is expected to veto it. In addition to Polk and White Haven, two other institutions for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities remain open in Pennsylvania – Ebensburg in Cambria County and Selinsgrove in Snyder County.
 
Polk interviewee Shirley Pickens served as executive director of the center since 2008 and as a staff member beginning in 1981. She retired in January, 2020. In her recorded interview, she speaks about her long career at Polk, how the institution and its practices have changed through the years, and the challenges of closing the facility.
 
Interviewee Mary Sauer, curator of the Memorabilia Room, worked at Polk for 46 years before retiring in 2019. Her recorded interview is a guided tour of the Memorabilia Room, which includes items that tell the story of life in the institution over the decades.
 
*****
 
The video interviews at L’Arche Erie and Polk Center will be available on the Consortium website – wpdhac.org – later this year.
 
WPDHAC’s Multimedia Histories project documents and shares important stories of Western Pennsylvanians with disabilities, their families, disability rights advocates, and others. The purpose is to educate the public about the historic struggle of people with disabilities to attain human and civil rights – and the lived experiences of today -- in order to promote community access, participation and equal opportunity.  

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