BOULDER — Clients and staff at the Montana Developmental Center in Boulder celebrated the construction of a new walking trail on Friday with a ribbon cutting and relay race. They see it as another step in their efforts to transform the beleaguered state facility into a “center of excellence.”
The residential facility for individuals with severe disabilities and behavioral issues has not always had a lot to celebrate. It came under fire in recent years after a staff member was convicted of sexually assaulting a client, and Medicaid funding has been jeopardized numerous times due to federal noncompliance and safety problems.
Last spring a bill in the Legislature threatened to close the facility, but it did not pass.
Staff at the MDC have been working to move on from its troubled past. Superintendent Gene Haire joined in 2011 with the goal of improving the treatment of clients and changing staff culture.
“People in this state need for this facility to thrive,” Richard Opper, director of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said at Friday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The new trail traces the perimeter of the 52-acre campus, about a mile and a half in length.
Residents have always walked the campus using sidewalks or maintenance streets, and officials said the new path provides a safer environment and room for expansion of other outdoor activities.
Haire said the trail project was selected by members of the center’s “client council,” a group of residents who meet regularly to have a voice in campus operations.
The center allocates money for the council to use for projects that benefit them. The trail cost around $10,000, most of it for dirt, said DPHHS public information officer Jon Ebelt.
Charles Schneider, a client and member of the council, said on Friday that he uses the trail as a way to calm himself down.
Some clients helped during construction by raking out the edges of the trail, and they may also assist with future maintenance.
Clients are similarly involved in the upkeep of a garden that was installed last summer as part of a horticulture therapy program.
The garden has expanded in the past year and is bearing potatoes, lettuce, jalapeños and other fruits and vegetables. A row of straw bale planters are accessible by wheelchair, noted Greg Gerard, vocational program supervisor.
“We’re not just playing in the dirt,” he said. “If you give someone a project, give them responsibilities and treat them like an adult, then they will become an adult.”
“Whether or not this garden ever produces an herb, it produced a human being,” Gerard said.
During Friday’s ceremony, the mother of an MDC client offered an emotional account of her son’s experience at the center.
Carol Dailey said she was nervous when Shawn was first placed at MDC at age 20. “Boulder was the place you don’t want your son to go,” she said.
“Do you realize you are misunderstood by the public?” she said.
He did well at MDC, but was later transferred to a different facility with more freedom for residents, where she said his condition progressively worsened. There Shawn’s weight ballooned more than 100 pounds, and he lost his ability to walk or care for himself.
“He went from never leaving his house, to never leaving his room, to never leaving his bed,” she said.
Shawn has been back at MDC for three years. At the Boulder facility, where staff supervision is around the clock, he has less mobility, but she said the limits have helped him thrive.
He has also been able to work more frequently on the MDC campus, which she said is important for his health.
Dailey believes strongly in the center’s ability to help her son, describing it as a kind of “magic.” She said Shawn is doing better now than ever before. “As his mother, that means I’m doing the best I’ve been in my life, too.”