Habilitation Center Profile
“It’s a very busy day in a habilitation center,” said Betty Coll, whose son, Patrick, is a resident of the Bellefontaine Habilitation Center in St. Louis.
In the morning, after breakfast, Patrick and the four other people he lives with in his cottage-style group home, head to work.
“There are workshops all over the campus,” Coll explained. “They earn money doing this.”
Patrick’s job is to shred paper.
“He loves to shred paper,” Coll said proudly.
The group eats lunch and dinner together every day at their home, except for Wednesdays, when they get to go out to eat.
“That’s the favorite thing,” Coll said.
Aside from working each day of the week, which is a constant in their lives, they get to experience a variety of programs in the afternoon, from swimming in the pool, to spending time with animals in the pet room.
After dinner, the residents are able to visit the “canteen” for a snack, or head to the gym to play basketball, for example.
“It is a busier program,” Coll said of the habilitation center.
Depending on the day, Patrick takes part in physical and occupational therapy on the center’s campus and a nurse visits him regularly.
The weekends provide a time of leisure for the residents and the canteen is visited more, Coll noted.
When at the cottage, Patrick has his own room and “they assign one person who is responsible for him,” Coll said.
Coll credits the center in Patrick being alive today due to the 24-hour care he receives—care that is medically needed due to an eating disorder, called Pica. Patrick, who was diagnosed with severe mental retardation and autism, moved to the St. Louis State School and Hospital (now known as the Bellefontaine Habilitation Center) more than 40 years ago. He was 8-years-old at the time.
Pica is best described as a disorder where people have a tendency to ingest inedible substances, such as glue, animal droppings, gravel, clay, laundry detergent and soil. While pica is most frequently seen in children, it is the most common eating disorder in individuals with developmental disabilities.
Pica is most commonly observed during the second and third years of life and is considered developmentally inappropriate in children older than 18 to 24 months. Pica will once in a while extend into adolescence, but it is rarely observed in adults who are not mentally disabled.
While many health concerns exist with the ingestion of inedible substances, this disorder can also lead to death in individuals who consume poisons and infectious agents. Death can also occur due to indigestible materials in the intestinal tract. This is why it is crucial Patrick, and others with Pica, have someone watching him 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“With all his problems, he’s doing well,” Coll said of her son. “And he’s alive.”
Last Resort Turns for the Good
When speaking to Coll about the Bellefontaine Habilitation Center today, she only has good things to say. But when she reflects on the day she had to put her son in the State School and Hospital, it is anything but happy memories.
Since her son was 2-years-old, Betty and her husband knew something was not right with Patrick. He would not speak and would just scream all the time. His behavior turned violent in response to him being unable to communicate.
“Doctors told us he’d outgrow it,” Coll said, adding that her son “looked normal.”
That never happened.
It was when the Colls had another son, four years after Patrick was born, that Patrick rebelled, placing his younger brother in constant danger.
“We tried everything,” Coll said, adding that they tried every program possible but no one could control him and no program would keep him for very long.
The Colls were warned that if they didn’t “put Patrick away,” they were going to have another problem with their younger son.
“It was something I did not accept or want to do,” Coll said.
But then one day it happened: Patrick pushed his younger brother down a flight of stairs. It was at this time, that Coll had to face the hard reality that Patrick would not be able to live at home.
“We, of course, didn’t want him to go,” Coll said. “We were so upset, but we had no choice.”
The first time they stepped into the then, St. Louis State School and Hospital, the Colls thought it was a terrible place. It was like a picture out of the horror movies, Coll explained.
It was because of Coll’s advocacy and determination—and a fateful call from a woman whose loved one was also at the hospital—that Coll decided to do something about the living conditions at the center. The two women assembled a board of people together and began making changes, starting with adding a therapeutic swimming pool.
“We got that and then we said this place is going to change. And we kept going,” Coll said. “We were strong and we did wonders.”