by Linda Mahnke

September 21, 2018 was a monumental day in my family’s life. It was my sister’s 75th birthday.

My sister, Joanne Armstrong, was born on September 21, 1943, the youngest of 5 children in Wasco, California. She was a beautiful baby with blond curly hair. As she got older she seemed a little different but was just as responsive and interested in learning as most children are. At age five and ready to start kindergarten, she was turned away. That was the first time I heard the word “Mongoloid.” I didn’t know what that meant but I discovered that it was a bad word to me and other families. It was later changed to “Mentally Retarded” and eventually to “Down Syndrome.”

We met other families that kept their “special” children out of the public view because the public was unprepared and uneducated about accepting someone different. They would stare and then laugh and call our loved ones “Mongoloids.”

Hearing this was very painful for the parents and other siblings such as myself. We had to build a path of understanding for others. We had to learn what to do, how to help those with Down syndrome to have a good life and be able to function in society.

My mother was determined to find a place for her curious little daughter.

My Mother’s journey started in the late 1940’s when she was unable to enroll JoAnne in public school.  My mother was determined to find a place for her curious little daughter. After much research my mother found a small school in Visalia, CA, called the Lillian B. Hill School. The children were taught basic skills such as how to tie their shoe laces, walk, dance and skip. They were in an environment where they were accepted and could be surrounded with understanding and compassion while they leaned new skills.

In the beginning my mother would take my sister on this daily 35-mile journey from our home to Visalia and return in the evening. Later Joanne was able to catch the college bus and go to school on her own.

During this time, my mother met other parents in Porterville, CA who needed help planning the futures of their children. I am proud to say my parents and others were pioneers. They saw the need to band with others and together they developed a plan. Their plan was to have a school located in Porterville, CA, that would meet their children’s needs. The parent’s dream come true when Lillian B Hill school opened in Porterville, CA Other challenges loomed ahead. As the children reached the age of 18 they were unable to continue at the school.  These pioneering parents were determined to help their children have a life in the community, so once again they began paving new paths.

These pioneering parents were determined to help their children have a life in the community…

They wanted job education and training. They wanted a future for their children, possibly learning a trade. They wanted a gathering place where it would be a haven, a safe place, for their children to be themselves and have a fulfilling life. The Sheltered Workshop Plan was the result of their planning.

The Sheltered Workshop was funded through the trades and through the abilities and vision of the pioneering parents. My Mother and Father worked on many bake sales, garage sales, and “anything” sales they could come up with. The group expanded as they were very determined to create a place for all of their children.

My mother met a lovely lady, her name was Vivian Traeger. who was employed at the Sheltered Workshop. Little did my mother know the impact Vivian would have on their daughter and her future.

Unfortunately, our Mother passed away shortly after the Workshop opened and she didn’t get to see the fruits of her labor. I’m sure she’s still watching from above. Her love and devotion was something I will never forget, or her love for her family and faith in God. She taught me to always look up when I think I can’t go on; it rekindles my sight and I find my way for some of the most challenging actions I have to do.

After Mother’s death Joanne went to live with my brother and his wife, Virginia in Terra Bella, CA. During this time Virginia gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Charlotte. Joanne always referred to Charlotte as “a wonderful baby girl”. Joanne LOVES -LOVES babies. She talks about feeding, dressing and changing their diapers. This is something Joanne has done with all my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Her love for these kids is the most special moments of her life and ours.

A few years later Joanne made her home with Vivian and John Traeger. She was treated like their own child and was accepted by all the Traeger family. She went to Church, parties, social events, Special Olympics and was able to attend activities at the Good Shepard Home of The West, Porterville, Ca, as Vivian was an employee there.

Joanne loved going to church. She had lots of friends and favorite people she had to say “hello” to each time. She loves people and her smile just warms your heart when you see her interact with everyone. She loves to sing, dance and go shopping. Some of her favorites were Lawrence Welk, Elvis, Dolly Parton, Michael Landon, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. She loved the interaction with UCLA, Special Olympics and Disneyland!

Joanne continued to learn work skills, especially janitorial work. She really enjoyed cleaning office buildings, houses or her room. She liked to iron – yes, with starch, too! Because of these skills, she could get outside jobs. The Sheltered Workshop was very beneficial to Joanne and helped her prepare for her future employment career.

The Traeger’s decided to retire and moved to Washington. They wanted to take Joanne with them but my father refused the offer and Joanne went to live in a group home. Thus, began Joanne’s journey of living on her own. I attribute her ability to adapt to new environments from the skills she acquired along the way.

In the 1980’s I took over conservatorship for Joanne as my father was getting older and felt he could no longer manage. I wanted to find someplace where she could use her skills and have her own place. I found out that Good Shepard Home had a group home in Visalia, CA. It was an old motel that had individual living units and a main building for large groups. The small units housed two boys or girls but with supervision. We applied for this program and she was accepted. She was in heaven!

Joanne lived with another girl in one of the units. Each week the supervisor and the group would map out the week’s menus, They would shop for the day they were assigned to prepare dinner, invite the remainder of the group over and have dinner together. They rotated the meal preparation daily. During this time, Joanne got a job bagging groceries at a local grocery store in Visalia. She loved it and enjoyed visiting with the customers. This was one of the happiest times of her life. She had her own place and a job outside of the workshop. But the government decided this was too institutional, so they closed the home.

The family decided to move Joanne closer so she could participate in our family activities and we were able to monitor her time at a new group home. She moved into a small group home and was given a job. She started cleaning offices and got to do contract work with supervision. She loved the very small paychecks — a big whopping 55 cents felt like $50 to Joanne. She continued to work on Government contracts, preparing misc. items for airlines. During the time spent in San Mateo she lived in several group homes, attended workshops and made new friends.

In 2016, I retired and we both moved to Eugene, Oregon. She now is able to visit with my two youngest children and families who live nearby.

Joanne was accepted into Pearl Buck Leap Program, in Eugene, OR. She goes each day with great enthusiasm. She never misses a day because she says her job is putting away books. She enjoys the activities at the center, especially singing and dancing.

She doesn’t complain and has large capacity to love. You see it in her sincerity towards others – she loves people, especially babies. She loves music, loves to sing and dance; loves to gamble; loves Disneyland, Mickey Mouse and Dolly Parton. Her dream is to go to Dollywood. Every Halloween she wants to dress like Dolly (we have acquired quite a few blond wigs.)

The movie “Beaches” and the song “Oh Industry” by Bette Midler is one of her favorites. She has the soundtrack for the movie in our car and watches this movie multiple times per week. She enjoys Whoopi Goldberg’s “Sister Act”, Little House on the Prairie, Lawrence Welk and Golden Girls.

Special Olympics are very special to Joanne. She participated for years in track and swimming, winning many medals. We are very proud of her and the medals she earned.

Joanne has had a life that amazes us. She has been able to adapt to so many situations. She is friendly but has her own boundaries. Her health has been exceptional with a few hiccups. As we look back over her life and accomplishments we see a life well lived, well-loved and more fulfilling than most. All of this because she loves back 10 times over, gives back and finds happiness in the simplest of things.

She especially loves her family.

Today, in 2018, we both are senior citizens making our way through life and enjoying our lives, family and friends. She is thinking about retiring sometime in the future but even that will not slow her down.

Kurt Metzler

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