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June 1, 2009

My Turn: Serving others is a powerful thing


This week's "My turn" column is by Lori Grace, assistant director of development and public affairs for Pathfinder Village.

I have witnessed the power of serving the greater good during a 25-year career at nonprofit organizations. My job at Pathfinder Village in Edmeston offers me the privilege of seeing how the kernel of a selfless idea may empower others over time.

Pathfinder Village is a residential community for people who have Down syndrome. The history of caring for those with this condition was influenced greatly by three exceptional women _ Florence Chesebrough, Janett Wiswell and Marian Mullet.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that all three were trained as registered nurses in the tradition of snow-white uniforms and exacting standards. It was in the crucible of nursing school that they gained the skills and "can do" attitude that allowed them to play significant roles in the history of our community.

Edmeston-native Florence Chesebrough worked as a public health nurse in Utica in the 1920s. During her rounds, she at times witnessed neglect of those who had developmental disabilities. In an era when there were few safeguards protecting children, she despaired at their treatment and lack of education.

One evening, while venting her frustrations to her roommate, Miss Chesebrough exclaimed she would start a school for these children. By chance, a reporter overheard the conversation through the boarding house duct work and wrote a story for the morning edition.

Back in Edmeston, Florence's father, Clarence, saw the paper and asked about her plans. Viewing the story as a sign, Florence resolved to follow through, and opened The Otsego School in 1922. The original building still stands on West Hill with a plaque next to the front door.

The school's program was progressive for its day. With housewives and students as care providers, the residents were instructed in self-care, speech and manners, and were given opportunities for schooling and recreation. It wasn't long before the Otsego School gained a solid reputation.

Two of the students recruited in the late 1940s to help on weekends were identical twins Janett and Janith Snow. The sisters came from Brookfield, and had a sister, Marlene, who had Down syndrome. Janett followed Miss Chesebrough into nursing, graduating from St. Luke's Memorial in 1953. After starting a family, Janett Snow Wiswell returned to Edmeston full-time in 1970 to continue her life's work.

Janett has known many of Pathfinder's current 80 residents for decades. Effective in her duties, her quiet reassurance and dedication have been the hallmark of her career. Her concern for the residents is legendary. There have been many times when Janett would visit a hospitalized resident before work, only to return to stay with the person late into the night at the close of her shift.

Janett often is able to assist a resident by "just being there." She pooh-poohs her calming influence, and says she gains more from the residents than she gives. She never fails to see the beauty, talents and special spark of humanity in each person.

Frequently, Janett escorts individuals to appointments. One of her most-telling moments came when she was driving Nonie Burlingham, a petite, vivacious woman, to a check-up. The snow-covered roads were terrible; the van started to spin. After a few hair-raising minutes, Janett brought the van to a stop. The normally quiet Nonie turned to Janett and dryly said, "Would you cut that out!"

Another of the Otsego School's most-successful recruits was Marian Mullet, a Bates College graduate and wife of the public school's superintendent. Although busy with an active family in the early 1960s, she became an integral member of the staff, working as the supervisory nurse and gaining the trust of residents' families.

The winds of change that marked the 1970s affected the care of the disabled, and sweeping legislation ended the shameful practices at some schools, like the infamous Willowbrook State School in Staten Island. Other schools, run on shoestring budgets but offering nurturing programs, also were closed because they were unable to meet new life-safety codes. By 1976, it was clear the state would close the Otsego School, despite the overwhelming support it had from its families.

To help reorganize, develop a fundraising program and craft a master plan for a new facility, the board asked Marian Mullet to serve as executive director in December 1976. Working at a fevered pitch, they gained the necessary state approvals for Pathfinder Village within four months. Construction began in 1979 on seven homes and a school; the Village opened in July 1980.

The growth of Pathfinder Village continues. It now has 10 residential homes, offices, a chapel, an inn, a bakery, a sports center and the Kennedy-Willis Center, which provides professional education and research opportunities, and outreach services to families affected by Down syndrome.

Programs have evolved to help residents attain independence and lead well-rounded lives. Marian Mullet retired as CEO in 2001 but remains a strong advocate for those who have Down syndrome. And Nurse Janett Wiswell continues to care for her residents, making them feel better, guiding them, and leading others through her quiet example.

To write for "My turn," contact Daily Star Publisher Tanya Shalor at tshalor@thedailystar.com or 432-1000, ext. 214.