The Fulton County Board of Developmental Disabilities held a reunion Monday, and members past and present attended to be honored and to reminisce.
They included those who were instrumental from the beginning in securing support for the county’s developmentally disabled, who decades ago were often hidden and shunned due to their challenges.
The celebration was part of the board’s year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Ohio Association of County Boards of DD, which was formed in statute on Oct. 25, 1967.
County Board of DD Superintendent Beth Friess thanked the 16 board members who attended for their countless hours of volunteerism and their passion. They were each awarded a commendation and a small gift, and were directed to a television screen showing a photographic collage of people throughout the years who have benefited from the program.
The board’s present building was constructed in 1973, but the origins of help for the county’s developmentally disabled were present a full 20 years earlier.
It was 1952 when Wayne and Ruth Zimmerman sought support for their daughters, Bonnie and Lynn. Both suffered from Batten disease, which causes genetic mutations that prevent the body’s cells from disposing of waste. Batten results in neurological problems that include seizures, blindness, loss of motor skills, and behavioral disorders.
Because no schools were available for the handicapped, the Zimmermans helped form the Fulton County Association for Retarded Children, (FCARC) which started with five families. Zimmerman explained that in that era the term “retarded,” which is now regarded as offensive, was accepted.
The FCARC was only the eighth organization of its kind in Ohio, and served four counties. It sponsored the Zimmermans’ Happ-I-Time School for the disabled, which for 10 years met in places such as church basements and American Legion halls. Its first home was at the Evangelical Mennonite Church in Wauseon at the urging of Rev. Gordon Zimmerman, who was not related.
Their daughters “were our inspiration,” said 93-year-old Ruth Zimmerman, who attended the reunion. Bonnie and Lynn both died in the late 1950s, both at age 13.
With the financial backing of parents, businesses, and local organizations, a permanent Happ-I-Time School was built on Shoop Avenue in Wauseon in 1962. Zimmerman said it was her and Wayne’s greatest accomplishment. He died in 2003.
“These kids had nothing,” she said. “No nursing home would take them. And when you took your kids anywhere people just wouldn’t accept them.”
When the Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities – which formally changed its name to the Board of Developmental Disabilities in 1991 – moved into its present building, the school merged with it and was sold.
Zimmerman believes over those two decades she helped lessen the stigma still attached to developmentally disabled people.
“Anybody that started looking at them funny, I’d give them hell,” she said. “We just told them right out it was hard enough having this situation without people making a comment.”
One of the first county Board of DD members, John Winzeler, 84, was the principal at Fayette Elementary School in the early 1960s when he became involved with supporting the county’s developmentally disabled. He knew several parents with disabled children.
“We didn’t have a program for them that would stand by itself,” he said.
He recalled negotiations with Hart Gamble, who would sell his property for the Happ-I-Time School building.
“He quoted a price far too low under land value,” Winzeler said. “He was so enthusiastic about the fact there was going to be a school there. I think that contributed to the price he was offering.”
Winzeler stayed with the Board of DD until about the early 1980s. “We had a really good board members,” he said. “They were here to make the show go. They were an interesting group of people.
“It was the satisfaction of accomplishment. You start out with bricks and mortar and watch the program grow.”
The county Board of DD has planned further celebratory events through the year, including a family picnic held Tuesday and a July fundraiser with the Come Together advocacy group for Friends of Felines in Defiance. But its first order of business was to thank its many board members.
“As volunteers, they give their time, they don’t get payment for it, and we couldn’t do any of the things we do without those board members. They’ve been very supportive,” Friess said.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.