Making a way
A visionary mother changes the future for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
(page 1 of 2)
Jack Gates remembers precisely how hot it would get riding in the back of a Pontiac during his family’s annual summer trip from Louisville, Ky., to Enid in the 1950s. But it’s an 800-mile trip he says his mother would never skip, because it was their chance to see Jack’s older brother Ronnie.
You see, Ronnie Gates couldn’t live at home. He was institutionalized at Enid State School because he was a young adult with Down syndrome, and that’s just the way it was. But Helen Gates, the visionary woman who drove that Pontiac summer after summer, wasn’t satisfied with the way it was.
A mother’s love knows no bounds
Helen Gates gave birth to a bouncing baby boy on Halloween in 1933, but she wouldn’t know until a few years later when she met with doctors in New York that Ronnie had Down syndrome.
Jack says his father “wanted Ronnie fixed,” and that his parents were devastated. At the time, there were few to no community services for families like the Gateses, and thus, Ronnie had to enter an institution.
“The Enid facility wasn’t nice. It was like a cuckoo’s nest,” Jack says. “But that’s all there was. Even early on, Mom wanted to do something for him. She started studying vocational rehabilitation and went on to get a lot of education and certifications.”
When Ronnie got older, the problem of finding options for him intensified. His mother decided she could create them. She told Ronnie she always worried about who was going to take care of him after she was gone, Jack recalls.
“That was her dream — to have a place for adults with mental disabilities,” he says.
Helen built a network of parents and families confronted with the same unfair world, she secured land and funding for a building and, says her proud son Jack, she “put the whole kit and caboodle together” to open the doors of the Gatesway Foundation in 1963.
The beginning of something great
At a time when individuals like Ronnie Gates were in a world apart, Gatesway increased opportunities for a number of families. And it changed the way they were treated.
“People with intellectual and developmental disabilities were transported in large institutional buses with darkened windows whenever they had cause to pass through the real world,” says Judy Myers, Gatesway CEO. “They were ‘protected’ from learning common, yet essential life skills such as crossing a busy street …
"Helen Gates saw that fence between the real world and the world apart, and through her sheer willpower and commitment to making the world a better place, she created a gate. That gate became Gatesway.”
Helen Gates rented a farmhouse at East 71st Street and South Lewis Avenue and opened one of the first group homes in Oklahoma, serving six men, including
Eight years later, the government provided funding for privately operated residences, and with this funding and a private donation from Tulsa philanthropist Leta Chapman, Helen bought a piece of land in Broken Arrow to build a larger home.
Additional funding would come over the years, which allowed for an education building and vocational training center, and Gatesway became a “campus.”
Jack Gates says Ronnie loved it there.
“Life became very full for him,” Jack says. “He had a job as a janitor he was so proud of. He loved his cowboy boots and his cowboy hat, and his hero was Roy Rogers. He was a character.”
Ronnie was special for many reasons, Jack says, and he was the catalyst that inspired their mother to do what she did — an accomplishment that now provides opportunities to so many people and families.
A time of change
Following Gatesway’s move to Broken Arrow, the organization continued to grow and serve more families, all while Oklahoma’s community service system was undergoing a vast number of changes in the 1980s.
Couple the state-level changes with the federal government’s Medicaid waiver program, and Oklahoma was paving the way to increase services to help individuals with intellectual disabilities living in the community and not just those in institutions.
While the intentions were moving in the right direction, the state’s ability to adequately fund the changes was hindered by the oil and gas bust.
With insufficient funding to enact mandated improvements, institutions including the Hissom Memorial Center in Sand Springs were overextended and struggling, according to a series of videos on the Oklahoma Department of Human Services website, www.okwagons2waivers.com.
In the early 1980s, a group of unhappy parents concerned about the quality of care their children were receiving at Hissom formed Homeward Bound Inc. and filed a federal lawsuit against Hissom and state officials in 1985.
By 1987, a federal judge ruled Hissom be closed and its 420 residents be moved back into their homes or the community. The state appealed but eventually dropped the appeal and agreed to a deadline to close its doors by 1994. Hissom residents such as Clifford Broyles were forced to find a new home, but there was no system in place to assist with the transition.
Broyles, who had suffered from a case of spinal meningitis that left him intellectually disabled and unable to live on his own without assistance, was, like so many others, searching for a better opportunity when Hissom closed its doors. That’s when he was welcomed with open arms to Gatesway Foundation. Now at 53, he is thriving, says his brother-in-law, Danny Goodnight. Danny’s wife, Mary Lynn Goodnight, is Broyles’ sister, legal guardian and caregiver.
“Gatesway Foundation guides us through his residential and vocational services,” Danny says. “Clifford mostly likes Gatesway for the dances and the awesome Christmas party.”
Broyles has been so successful in his vocation — he has done lawn maintenance at the same company for more than 10 years — a few years ago he was presented an award for his employment by the governor and had the opportunity to visit the Governor’s Mansion in Oklahoma City.
Helen Gates’ plan to improve the lives of her son and individuals similar to him is working.