It was in the early 1950s when a group of parents and community leaders came together to help each other navigate the world of caring for children with diverse abilities. The effort was led by Dr. Max E. Miller and his wife Leona.
“We started in 1952 and there was a band of eight and it was basically like, ‘how can we support each other?’ said Robert Labatch, president and CEO of Hope Enterprises Inc.
Classes for children and adults were held in a church basement until in 1958 a building was constructed on Catherine Street in the east of the city. This has become the “The School of Hope” for families who previously had few options for caring for their loved one. Labatch pointed out that there were many “Chocolate Chip Cookie Donations and All That Stuff” in order to get money to fund the school because there was no federal funding. Everything was really in the hands of the family with the special needs child.
“There was no public education. If you had a child with various abilities, you basically put him in an institution where he lived, really, in your basement,” Labatch said.
“They really solidified things by having preschool and pre-services. What they looked at was that they knew that if you start with early intervention and work with families, you can work on a continuum of care,” he said.
“That’s why Catherine Street was such a big, monumental thing because they were able to put bricks and mortar there. They started the School of Hope and it kind of solidified the beginning of services and support for community members,” Labatch said.
In 1962, increased enrollment prompted the construction of an addition to the original School of Hope building, but there was still no opportunity for children with diverse abilities to enter. in the education system.
“Early intervention allowed people to get involved in the education system and really work in preschool and then in kindergarten. Hope in the early years kind of worked with the school districts at that time,” Labatch said.
Then, in the 1970s, everything changed in terms of education and care for people with disabilities. More federal and state funding became available when the government called for the deinstitutionalization of people with intellectual disabilities.
“We finally got up in time and said we had to do it. At that time, Hope was able to provide post-graduation types of things and services to transitioning youth,” Labatch said.
“It really helped to stay involved in the life of the child and the family through the stages. Hope always wanted to be a support for the family but not run the services. There are all unique needs, they are all different. Some people need a lot more medical services, others just need more support services. So you really had to determine what the level of need was,” he said.
During this time, Hope worked with parent groups in the community to try to identify gaps in services.
When institutions were closed, the federal government gave money to the state, which in turn gave it to communities to create services and support for people.
“You took an institution that had thousands of people and then you created smaller and smaller houses in the community,” Labatch said.
At that time, 15-16 bed group homes were established in the community in order to decentralize.
“We weren’t at the point where we were really individualized,” he said.
In Hope’s early years, the focus had been on brick-and-mortar types of services. When the institutions closed, the focus changed.
“What they really said was that the federal government and the state government are going to give money to communities to create services and supports for people,” Labatch explained.
At this time, Hope created group homes with perhaps 15 to 16 beds to meet the needs of the community.
“What people did was if they went to a group home, they went to an adult training center…and then you had professional services. We had a sheltered workshop where people who were more vocation-oriented could go, and then maybe more of our behavioral or health issues went to an adult day program,” he said.
Over the years, Hope has offered sheltered workshops and worked with school districts to provide vocational training services to students.
“It tied us to the last years of high school. Then we had early intervention services and a daycare that got people across,” he said. “You kind of had that connection.”
Speaking of the group homes that once existed, Labatch said,“These have evolved over the last 25 years to be just one to two people, three people.”
“Today there are many more. We have grown as a company. There is a lot more support. Public education is light years away from what it was in the 70s, so Hope doesn’t necessarily need to do all of these things for the education system. Labat noted.
“So as the school grew and offered more services, Hope took their services and they scaled some of the things after school or after graduation with job coaching and this kind of things”, Labatch said.
He pointed out that Hope is now focusing more on the transitioning youth age group, those aged 15 and over.
“I think what’s happened is that in the 70 years of our inception, it’s been the innovation of all my predecessors and the organization to just look at what the community needs – what the population needs – and then evolve into what it is”, Labach said,
“Always listening to people’s needs and desires, what they need from a service,” he added.
Today there is the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and other services offered to the community of various abilities.
Hope offers residential services. They have what they call choice services, that is to say a panoply of individualized or group services such as home health services, support services that are more socio-recreational. There is also coaching and job evaluation, where there is an evaluation of short-term job skills.
“We really focus on training people in an environment where they are going to work. In the past we had the sheltered workshop where you would only be with disabled people. It would be a very closed group,” he said.
“Over the years we have discovered, just like in public education, that integration and inclusion is how people find friendships – they find natural supports,” he said.
For example, Labatch explained that if a person with diverse abilities works in a local grocery store or restaurant, there is job coaching and assessment in that community setting.
“We do on-the-job training rather than trying to simulate something elsewhere,” he said.
“The local community has been great. Some people have made special accommodations for us because they know the person works and supports and they have Hope staff there,” he added.
The impetus for providing premium services to families is the ability to establish a relationship with families.
“What we tried to do was find out all about the family. We want to establish a relationship and then we want to talk about what those services are. We want to take all the confusion away from the family,” he added.
Labatch admitted that Hope is still at the forefront of the choice services program.
“No longer having a sheltered workshop but doing everything as a community. There are still a lot of people who are still doing much more separate things,” he said. I
With the acquisition of the Children’s Development Centre, Hope was able to expand its preschool services that existed at the Catherine Street site.
Labatch said at Children’s Campus, Hope has a preschool where they have partnered with STEP, which runs a few classrooms for their Headstart and Headstart programs.
The office of the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program, which serves two counties, is located there.
Labatch credits the partnerships Hope has with other nonprofits as one of the reasons for their success.
“We didn’t try to do it alone. I think it started as an initiative of being like 12 parents, like hey, I need this for my kids – I have to. But, I think it was the partnerships and also the community that embraced it,” he said.
“I’ve been to many places across PA, and the communities tell you a lot, how they support each other and how they work together. But, I think innovation and then community partnerships is what made our success for 70 years and I think that will be what will keep us growing for the next 70 years,” he said.