In 1900, children born with mental and physical disabilities were often delivered to mental hospitals and institutions that were devoid of the gentle care and treatment suited to their ages, abilities and growth. A few decades earlier, state and private schools that were dedicated to the teaching and care of children termed “idiotic,” “backward,” and “feeble-minded” had just begun to be formed throughout the United States.
One of these schools, St. Coletta, was founded in 1904, and staffed by Franciscan nuns in Jefferson, Wisconsin, where the nuns had formed their convent in 1864. The original campus, comprised of dormitories, classrooms, kitchens, a chapel, and several outbuildings, covered 174 acres, although this grew to 650 acres throughout the Jefferson area. Children from all over the country came to St. Coletta’s, originally called The St. Coletta Institute for Backward Youth.
In 1931, they incorporated under the name St. Coletta School for Exceptional Children, out of respect for the residents and their families. Their website mentions that one of their students had said, “We don’t walk backward!”
Over the years, hundreds of residents passed through St. Coletta, which became nationally known for its dedication to advocating for the rights of people with disabilities to be included in all aspects of life and treated with the dignity they deserved. For some residents, this was the only home and family they would know, but as society’s understanding of these disabilities evolved, many residents were able to receive the training to live, eventually, in group homes or with family members, and some in their own apartments, holding jobs that honored their gifts and differing aptitudes for independence.
Decades ago, St. Coletta began to adapt to the changing needs of its students, who no longer required on-site dormitories, since children with special needs were acclimated into school systems that allowed them to live with their families, and St. Coletta’s adult residents transitioned to supervised group homes. Acreage was sold off and then buildings were emptied and possessions sold, although St. Coletta’s remains active in training and assisting people with special needs.
A few years ago, there was a weekend-long sale of furniture and household items and we went to explore the grounds and honor the history of St. Coletta’s exceptional children. I discovered two old wooden sleds leaning against a wall, covered with dust and neglect. One of the people assisting with the sale said we could take them for $10.00, more as a donation to St. Coletta’s operating costs than because they were of any value.
During Phillip’s Christmas break, we decided to restore the oak sleds as best as we could. I’d washed them over and over at the end of the summer, and cut away the disintegrated, filthy ropes. Phillip sanded (and sanded), then primed and painted the steel runners. I refreshed the logo on one of the sleds, and then we used coats of tongue oil to seal the wood. Phillip still wants to add a layer or two of spar varnish to them, and we’ll lace new rope through the holes.
They’re still not worth anything, monetarily, but I can see the worn places where little hands and feet gripped the sleds, and I can imagine the laughter and joy of children who had found a place they could call home, where they were loved and schooled, and encouraged to play…and it touches my heart. The sleds are worth nothing, yet they are treasures.
They remind me that we can evolve in our understanding of each other; we can change and grow meaningfully towards greater love and make deeper invitations to each other’s highest self. We can stop defining each other with labels that denigrate and cease judging each other’s worth. There is such great need and such discouraging behavior on the part of those we look to for leadership presented to us every day…As the New Year offers fresh pages to fill and wide-open paths towards better dreams, it is good for me to look upon these humble sleds and allow the sweet, brave spirits of exceptional children to restore my hope. We can change. We can grow. We can listen and learn. We can evolve, together.
A former resident of St. Coletta’s created this lovely tribute to his childhood home. (I had to use the enlarged version to read his words.)
One of St. Coletta’s more famous residents was Rosemary Kennedy, whose sad story is retold here.
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14 thoughts on “A Child Shall Lead…”
This post saddened me. I read the link on Rosemarie. I had never heard of this story, and it too, is very sad. There’s no question, but that society as a whole is responsible for the care of those who were born handicapped, or became incapacitated by some terrible illness. The efforts to deal with such handicaps have not always been successful, and we shouldn’t be too hard on those doctors and educators who tried new methods that didn’t work right. After all, in most cases, these people were trying to help. But we should always remember those whose fate has been less fortunate than our own, and try our best to give them love and care… and always, respect.
Thank you for visiting and sharing, Shimon, and joy to your New Year. From what I’ve read and learned since living here, St. Coletta offered a very loving and nurturing environment…I’m comforted to think these children and adults were cared for and embraced by women who were so devoted to their welfare, but it’s sad to think of parents being unable to care for their children at home because society lacked the means to support them in doing so…I’m glad things have changed and agree with you that everyone is part of our community, belongs to our greater family and, as such, deserves whatever love and care contributes to his and her health and happiness…that is becoming a forgotten truth in our rush to “cut costs and balance budgets.”
Kitty, this was a sweet and sad post. I love the idea of you and Phillip restoring and cherishing the sleds. St. Coletta’s sounds like a forward (not backward) thinking place, with the best interests of its clients at heart. Thank you for such a heart felt post, one that made “deeper invitations to each other’s highest self.” Peace to you in this new year.
Thank you, Lynn; yes, it was a beautiful setting and nurturing environment. I’m happy it was there for the children and adults it served and I’m happy the need for its existence (as a home for these residents) has passed, because our society more fully participates in the necessary care of these children, allowing them to be with their families. St. Coletta still serves and educates, and is an active force for good in our community and others. I do fear what our society (nationally) is becoming, however, with all the focus on allotment of financing for the military rather than those in need, so it seemed a timely post…And great peace to you as well, my friend.
I moonlight at the rescue of dogs by night and by weekend; by day I work with an organization that employs nearly 3,000 individuals with disabilities, and supports hundreds more each year in employment with other companies in the community. Their journeys are still a challenge, but their gifts, and resolve never cease to amaze me. We are all still changing, and growing, and learning how to accept others who are not like us. When we do, the life that is changed is likely to be our own – in the most profound ways. Thank you for this sweet and sad story – and for keeping the faith that people can evolve…together.
Thank you, Ogee. I agree that when we open ourselves to the other we are gifted in ways we could never have imagined…a joyful New Year to you and blessings on all of your wonderful work…you are so present to life and its possibilities for “tikkun olam,” repairing the world, Ogee!
Very moving K….How wonderful to think someone cared enough back then to create such a loving atmosphere for those in need of special care. They look happy and well cared for and they certainly were not just left in rooms to rot. They were active and went places and did so many things. Hopefully the world will regain its compassion again and pull itself up out of the dark hole we are stuck in. Thanks for sharing this piece! The sleds are beautiful by the way…Nice job 🙂 VK
Thank you, VK! I agree; the children look happy in the photos and the recollections I’ve read express contentment, too. There were also huge greenhouses and a lot of encouragement to grow and tend plants for sale and for their many gardens: activities that I’ve found to be deeply nourishing for the spirit.
Thanks, too, for your compliments on the sleds. I always appreciate your kindness and visits!
What a beautiful yet hauntingly sad post.
How awful not to be able to raise your own child just because it has a disability.
I’m so glad that attitudes are changing and those with special need are regarded as special!
I teach art work shops to special needs children and although the work is challenging it is SO rewarding and the children are angels.
I’m so pleased you restored the sleds, they are gorgeous. I hope you get to using them, I look forward to pics!xxxxx
Thank you, Snowbird. Yes, we’ve come a long way and that’s encouraging…everyone’s here to bless the world. Phillip and I have taught many students with special needs and felt they enriched our lives, as all of our students have. Thank you, too, for your kind words about the sleds; I know you’re a magnificent restorer of things old and forgotten… 🙂
Oh, the tricks of the mind. I looked at your photograph of the two sleds and immediately read the words on one of them as if they should be Lightning Glider. Call it a sudden restoration of memory, the unbidden recalling of something I haven’t thought about in decades: gliding on a wood-and-metal sled when I was a child on Long (Ago) Island.
Welcome, Steve…thank you for visiting and sharing your beautiful memory. We used to use wax paper to rub along our skate blades and sled runners, and we’d skate and sled from morning till the moonlight guided us over the hills. I just saw a news report urging parents to be sure their children wore helmets and avoided steep hills if they’re sledding. I’m all for safety, but it makes me wonder how we all survived!?!
Both of these old sleds were made in PA, also long ago.
May gentle peace and lovely memories bless your day.
Thank you for such a well-written, loving post, and I enjoyed watching the video and imagining the lives the children must have led, and now feel the sleds are very valuable! – Kaye
Thank you, Kaye. Yes; they really are treasures!