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.