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Washtenaw United: Chelsea's St. Louis Center Maintains Mission To Help Its Special Needs Residents

Deana Fisher
St. Louis Center

For over 60 years, the St. Louis Center in Chelsea has housed those with developmental disabilities and helped them find employment and work toward independence. Yet, like many nonprofit organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the center financially and emotionally. The center's chief operations officer, Deana Fisher, joins WEMU's David Fair to discuss how her establishment and its residents have adapted to the pandemic.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area.  And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services.  It is a community voice.  It is 'Washtenaw United.'




Deana Fisher has been Chief Operations Officer of St. Louis Center for the past 4 years. She has an MSW from Wayne State University, and has spent the last 40 years advocating for children and persons with disabilities through work at the Children’s Center in Detroit, Wayne Center in Detroit, and the Northeast Guidance Center.   


St. Louis Center


Mission: St. Louis Center serves individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in an intentional, faith-based community. St. Louis Center is home to 73 adults and children from the age of 5 to 75 who have intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). They all have an IQ of 70 or below and varying levels of functional ability. Approximately 40% of the residents are older adults and 27% live in an assisted living facility at the Center. Also, 27% are children between the ages of 5 and 18.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, UWWC invested $15,000 to support increased staffing demands experienced by St. Louis Center as a result of the pandemic.

Persons with I/DD have been historically marginalized and as a result, have experienced significantly lower health outcomes when compared to the non-I/DD population. Although there have been improvements in their healthcare in recent years, they tend to have more significant health needs than the neurotypical population. They begin the aging process significantly earlier and can experience the issues of aging in their 40s. This is true of residents at St. Louis Center. More than a quarter of our population lives in an assisted living unit and requires round the clock assistance with activities of daily living. They also require specialized durable medical equipment, such as wheelchairs, walkers, lifts and other such items.

The children at St. Louis Center have all been removed from their homes because of abuse and neglect and have suffered trauma. St. Louis Center has established a trauma-informed care approach to help manage often extreme behaviors and help minimize instances of residents hurting themselves or others. This approach is particularly important as children are confined to their living areas and their routines, which are typically a stabilizing element, are disrupted. The ability to continue to support caregivers at this stressful time are more important than ever. Support from the United Way helped  maintain existing programs and operations, which is crucial in continuing to provide a high level of care to our youngest residents.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'd like to thank you for joining us on a Monday morning. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. Over the past year and a half, we've been fighting our way through the COVID-19 public health crisis. It's also been an economic and financial stressor for all too many, including some of our cherished service agencies. And during the same time, we've come to a place where just maybe we're taking a hard look at ourselves and will take on the work necessary to eradicate the inequities that those in marginalized communities continue to deal with. Today, we're going to take a look at the Chelsea-based St. Louis Center in Washtenaw County, which serves those with some who are intellectually and developmentally disabled. Our guest is Deana Fischer, who is the center's chief operating officer. And Deana, thank you so much for taking time today.

Deana Fisher: Thank you.

David Fair: The St. Louis Center operates with this philosophy that there are no limited persons, but rather persons with limits. Tell me more about the distinction.

Deana Fisher: Well, we like to look at the individuals that live with us as being folks that are just the same as any of us are. But their individual barriers might be a little bit more difficult than some of us. But rather than looking at them as a population who is severely disabled and can't really be independent at all.

David Fair: The St. Louis Center operates on a campus-based group home model. What exactly does that look like?

Deana Fisher: Well, we have a beautiful campus out here just a little bit west of Chelsea that is bright and sunny and has deer wandering the premises, lots of flowers. But on the campus, we have currently six separate homes for folks that have disabilities, adults ages 18 through, I think our oldest resident now is 80. Many of them have been with us for 30 or 40 years. They were very young, and this is their home. We were servicing children until very recently, when we chose not to do that anymore. And so we are repurposing the children's homes and adding three more adult foster care homes on the campus.

David Fair: In taking a look at how all of these interactions have worked over the decades, how much of the personal and individual growth and progress that residents at the center make can be attributed to the way they find ways to live with and support one another?

Deana Fisher: It's very important that they support each other, and that our staff are there to support them. We have some folks that are very challenged, and then we have some folks that are much more able to do independent living. And the ability for them to have years with them, it serves a lot of purposes, not only to support each other, but have friends. We've gotten much more involved in the community in the last four years. So, we have a number of residents that are in competitive wage jobs. So, we have the wave bus that comes and picks them up. They use public transportation just like they would anyplace else. And then we have individuals that need a more supported employment. And so for them, we have access to programs through Washtenaw Community Mental Health.

David Fair: Once again, this is Eighty-Nine, one WEMU, and our Washtenaw United conversation with Deana Fisher continues. Deana is the chief operating officer of the St. Louis Center, just west of Chelsea. And, Deana, as you mentioned, chances are a lot of us have encountered some of your residents in area businesses when you are looking to help secure and maintain employment. How does that process work in creating the partnerships?

Deana Fisher: Well, it's gotten a lot easier since the pandemic. When they started, of course, for a year, we didn't go anywhere or do anything, because it was very important that residents in January, we started vaccinating our residents. So they are all now vaccinated, and they're very eager to work. A lot of the businesses in the community are starting to recognize that this is a workforce that they can tap into. We know that there are worker shortages everywhere. And so, we've actually been able to add a number of competitive wage jobs out there in the community simply to fill. We need that employees have a reliable staff that are going to be there on time every day.

David Fair: As you mentioned, feedback from employers and the public alike has been quite strong. There's a work ethic, a desire to please a great pride in the work performed. And I imagine that these employment partnerships are enhancing not only your residents quality of life, but the overall quality of life in the community.

Deana Fisher: Yeah, it definitely is. They are well known and healthy in the organizations that they work for. They're very friendly folks. They do great customer service because they love the customers. And so, it's actually been a great partnership with a lot of the community organizations that supported us anyway. But now they have a way of supporting us that also benefits them.

David Fair: And you mentioned that these are competitive wage jobs. A fact of the matter is, through the course of history, those with these kinds of challenges have been paid far less as we talk about inequities in our community. Is this a gap that is being closed?

Deana Fisher: I think it is a gap that's being closed in many instances, because as we have more folks working in the community and the community gets to see the type of employees they are, they're calling us now to ask us if we have anyone that couldn't work in their business. So that's been great.

David Fair: Washtenaw United continues on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. We're talking with St. Louis Center Chief Operating Officer Deana Fisher. How much did life change for your residents, Deana, when the pandemic shut everything down and everybody was forced to stay right there on campus?

Deana Fisher: Yeah, that was really hard. Our residents couldn't go to work. They didn't go to school. You know, Michigan allowed individuals up to age 26 with disabilities to go to school. Suddenly, their lives went from being very full and lots of activities, lots of places to go, lots of things to do to basically sitting and watching TV, because we didn't even want to mix our homes together. I mean, we have a very large administrative building with a gym in it and, pre and post pandemic, they would often gather to play basketball or and do other activities as a whole campus. But we couldn't do that before the vaccinations were done. So it was rough. There were a couple of residents whose parents took them home, because they felt like they could keep them safer at home. There were others who were able to see their parents for close to six months at the beginning of the pandemic, before we worked out all of the COVID safety protocols here at the center.

David Fair: The manner of care and daily scheduling all changed for the employees of the center, too. Did you suffer much attrition among the nurses and the staffers, as many care facilities did during the pandemic?

Deana Fisher: Yeah, it was very difficult, because we have a number of young moms that work for us. They got very frightened, and the first half of the pandemic, when we didn't have the ability to test our staff, anybody that had a headache was home for ten days.

David Fair: Right.

Deana Fisher: That was very, very hard. Well, we have offered the vaccine to all of our staff and our residents. They didn't have to go anywhere. We got the CVS here. So now we are only doing weekly testing on staff that have not been vaccinated.

David Fair: In your years at the center, Deana, is there one individual or one story that stands out is kind of representative of the successes for those you serve?

Deana Fisher: Well, very recently, we had an experience with a young man who was with us when he was a child, when we were a school. Then when he finished school, the community mental health agency would not continue to pay for him to be here. So he went into adult AFC. But two months ago, he came back. Now, when he left us, he was completely independent and toileting. He has cerebral palsy in his hands, but he's able to feed himself and take care of himself during the 10 years he was gone. He lost all of that ability. Now, we've had him back for a couple of months. We are having a lot of success with toileting him. We've got him involved in some physical therapy. So, he's going to be able to feed himself again. He's really come leaps and bounds in just the two months that we've had him.

David Fair: I love hearing success stories like that. Now, the St. Louis Center is in its 61st year of existence. What is the vision for the future?

Deana Fisher: The new home that we are getting ready to open will be independent living home. We have a full housekeeping staff, a full kitchen staff. But we know that there are individuals that live with us that are perfectly capable of cleaning their own rooms, also in cooking their own meals. So, we're going to be moving about 15 of the residents toward a more independent living within our village. So, they'll still be able to be here with their friends and their families, but they will be held to a higher standard for taking care of themselves.

David Fair: Deana, thank you for sharing your time today and sharing your perspective as well. I appreciate it.

Deana Fisher: OK, thank you.

David Fair: That is Deana Fisher, chief operating officer for the St. Louis Center, just west of Chelsea. For more information on the work the center is doing with and for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Visit our Web site at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is Eighty-Nine one WEMU FM and WEMU HD, one Ypsilanti.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him atdfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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