The long goodbye – Eastern Oregon Training Center disperses clients across the state
The activity room at Eastern Oregon Training Center is hushed now, only the bubbling of a fish tank breaking the ghostly silence.
Direct care staffer Eileen Waggoner can still hear echoes of voices and laughter in her mind from days gone by, along with soft jazz from the boom box, a whirlwind of cutting and pasting, tambourine banging, Yahtzee and Bingo, the planting of marigold seeds.
Now most of the clients are moved out to residential settings and even the nine fish in the activity room need homes. The final three clients move out Tuesday.
EOTC has been on and off the chopping block for years, but finally the axe blade hit firmly this year when Oregon legislators directed that EOTC’s 40 residents move to smaller neighborhood group housing by the end of October.
“It’s really sad – I’ve been here 28 years,” Waggoner said. “They are family.
Nurse Conrad Bozlee worked two stints at EOTC, plus ten years at Salem’s Fairview Training Center. Bozlee said care of the developmentally disabled has evolved from warehousing to immersion.
“At the turn of the century, institutions were built to remove them from the spotlight,” he said. “They were considered to be evil – a blight on society. It was a fancy way to say they were scum.”
Fairview opened in 1908 as the Oregon State Institution for the Feeble-Minded. During World War II, society softened its view, Bozlee said, and began viewing the developmentally disabled as innocents who would forever remain children. Institutionalizing them, however, was still the norm.
Later, civil rights activism prompted changes.
“A lot of money went into mainstreaming,” Bozlee said. “People started asking, ‘Why are these people in prison when they never committed a crime?'”
With the latest move to community settings, he said, “Oregon is actually ahead of the curve.”
Still, some question how the most severely disabled will adjust in their new living situations. Some behaviors are scary to the uninitiated, everything from repetitive rocking and moaning to hitting or incontinence. Most common killers of the DD population are aspiration of food, constipation, dehydration and seizures.
EOTC staffer Christina Pierce is comfortable navigating in this world. She felt disbelief, then enormous sadness at news of the impending closure.
“It’s getting easier,” she said, “but the first move was pretty emotional for everyone.”
She talked as she readied medication for Keith Middleton, who sat down the hall in a wheelchair, head cocked to the side, watching television.
“Hi, Buddy,” she said, as she entered the room.
A smile lighted Middleton’s face as he turned to look at Pierce. Laughing, he greeted her and asked what was for lunch. Middleton is leaving soon for Portland, Pierce said.
The concept of moving is a tough one to grasp, say EOTC staff, but residents seem to understand. They see photos of their future home, make visits and meet their caretakers before moving day, but still find it tough.
One man balked when he arrived at his new home. It took a couple of tries, plus pizza, to lure him out of the van.
“He got more adjusted as the day went on,” said Waggoner, who has visited him several times.
Steve Bailey has worked at the training center since 1974 and is now responsible for finding placements for residents.
The matching process is complex, he said, connecting clients’ personalities and mental and physical challenges with homes and caretakers. A client with autism, he said, needs routine, while others may require ramps and roll-in showers for wheelchairs. Provider homes are found both locally and around the state.
Some former EOTC employees are now working in the provider homes or providing foster care. The placement process has gone more smoothly than Bailey or or his assistant Andy Speden thought possible.
Neighbors of the group homes are greeting the new residents with varying degrees of acceptance, said Bailey. While some come bearing cookies and handshakes, others have expressed worry.
To the latter, Bailey said, “They are innocent people – they mean you no harm. They are going to be great neighbors.”
Bailey will follow their progress for a year as an employee of the state’s “On the Move in Oregon” program. The program helps institutionalized populations transfer to community settings accompanied by wrap-around packages of supports and services.
The move to group homes draws criticism from some quarters.
Jody Lamberson, a former EOTC employee who retired earlier with back problems, fears for the clients. At EOTC, they had vocational activities and highly-trained advocates, she said. Now, Lamberson fears, their care will diminish.
“It’s killing me to see where they are putting them,” she said, “people that I loved and trained.”
She lamented the number of jobs lost, including that of her husband.
“My husband has worked there for 20 years,” she said. “He’s getting kicked to the curb.”
Wyndi Kannier, a staffing coordinator since 1993, heard rumors of closure the day she started. Nothing materialized then or with subsequent moves to shut down EOTC. She reacted with disbelief two years ago when the rumors resurfaced. Now, with training center doors poised to latch shut, it’s finally sunk in.
“It’s surreal,” Kannier said. “It gives you a knot in your gut.”
“I really didn’t believe it until maybe six months ago,” Waggoner agreed. “Then it hit me – this is really coming true.”
As the clients leave the only home they’ve known for years, they take a little piece of EOTC with them. Waggoner and other staff are tearing apart photo albums and creating small books for residents to pack in their suitcases.
Waggoner opened one of the albums and looked at the photographic record of trips to Round-Up, a train ride to Mt. Hood, birthday parties, residents in Halloween costumes, Special Olympics, walking on the beach or riding the amusement rides at Silverwood. Nostalgia washed over Waggoner’s face as she looked at the albums.
“They’re special people,” she said.
The training center started as the Eastern Oregon State Hospital in 1909. Inside what some called “The Stone Mother” lived hundreds of mentally ill or developmentally disabled patients.
In 1985, the hospital, displaced by the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, divided in two, the Eastern Oregon Psychiatric Center caring for mentally and emotionally-disturbed patients and Eastern Oregon Training Center housing developmentally disabled residents across the street in what used to be staff housing.
What will become of the campus is still evolving. The Community Developmental Disabilities Program recently moved into offices there. Pendleton House, a facility for criminally insane individuals, takes up one corner of the campus.