Imagine living in a ward with 200 other people. You all sleep in just two rooms - filled with rows of beds. There are no curtains on the windows. Bathrooms have no stalls or even the merest privacy. For all of you, there is one television and one pool table for entertainment. You rarely go outside. This was life in the Laconia State School.
First opened in 1903 as the NH School for the Feeble Minded, the institution was designed as a place for children with disabilities. It began with a population of 58 people, aged three to 21. They were called inmates. By 1916 there were 293 residents but the state refused to increase their funding, despite the obvious need. Overcrowding was a major issue. Staff received little, if any, training. If parents or family members wanted to visit their loved ones in Laconia, they were told they could take them out, but people from the outside were not invited in.
In 1952, Richard Hungerford came on as Laconia's superintendent. He was not a medical doctor like the previous directors, but a teacher with a new philosophy who brought a reform movement. He did not discourage parents from visiting, he invited them. Mr. Hungerford wanted to shine a light on the school and empower the parents to help Laconia get the help and funding it needed. In 1956 he even invited groups to come in and photograph the conditions. The Great Bay Association came in with a film crew.
The Great Bay Association (later renamed Great Bay Services) was a recently-formed group of parent advocates from the Seacoast New Hampshire area. The association produced a film called Help Wanted, which followed life in the institution, for the first time showing the outside world what Laconia had become. As the film's narrator asks "is this living or mere existence?".
The film highlights the indignities inflicted on the residents - like four broken toilets, without seats, being shared in a ward with 43 men. Women who did unpaid work, helping in the children's ward. Working in the laundry included dangerous conditions, and lack of organizations led to frequently lost clothing. There was no space for personal possessions or the comforts of home. An outdated and too-small kitchen was used to create the food for all the residents, leading to shortages and unsafe food.
The film closes with the remarks "can we not unite and secure more trained personnel to help Mr Hungerford and the dedicated work he is doing under tremendous handicaps? It is hoped that all who witness this film will come to a fuller understanding of the extent of the problem now existing at Laconia, NH".
The film was shown to community groups around the state. For the first time, the state legislature faced outside pressures to support Laconia State School.
Trustees of Laconia removed Hungerford in 1960, mostly because of his contentious relationship with the Legislature. They feared it would overall hurt their ability to support the school. However, thanks to Help Wanted and an expose by The Portsmouth Herald, the public were now aware and invested in the condition at Laconia and the movement continued to grow.
Hungerford and the parents' association succeeded in bringing some improvements to the school. The two following superintendents - Arthur Toll and Richard Melton - followed the path started by Hungerford. However overcrowding, funding and staffing issues continued.
In 1978 the parents' association, with the support of Dr. Melton, brought a lawsuit against the state of New Hampshire. In 1980, a judge ordered the state to provide "the least restrictive care possible" for the residents, and required an immediate reduction in the size of the institution. This "action for independence" affected not only for Laconia but those in community programs. It formed the area agencies and vendor agency system, which includes Great Bay Services, that we have today.
On January 31, 1991, Laconia State School closed its doors permanently. This made NH the first state to close their institutions.
Help Wanted is careful not to make Laconia's staff into villains. There are those few who took advantage of the situation, but most of the school's staff cared about their residents. The industry continues to constantly change, as people's understanding of those with disabilities improves. Our current "best practices" are constantly evolving, even today as we're learning to add remote technology as a way to effectively bring services to even more individuals.
In 2009 another film crew visited the now derelict school, shooting the documentary Lost in Laconia. Footage from Help Wanted is used throughout the film.
Lost in Laconia is available in its entirety on YouTube. While it details an important part of our history, the film vividly depicts life in the Laconia State School. It can be very difficult to watch.
Great Bay Services has supported several members who lived at Laconia, or at some of the other state institutions in New Hampshire and Maine. We continue to move forward, to improve the lives of not only those we directly serve, but all those with disabilities.
- Elizabeth Worboys Burr, Director of Mission Advancement
In a recent meeting, one of our trustees likened Great Bay Services to a flower growing from a sidewalk crack. Not only does this imagery well represent the resilience of our community in the past year, but the entire history of Great Bay Services.
In the past, families of children with disabilities were faced with an impossible decision. If they were unable to care for their loved one at home, there were no additional supports available. Looking for guidance, they would turn to trusted advisors like doctors or teachers. The parents would all be told the same thing - put the child in an institution. In New Hampshire, this likely meant the Laconia State School. In Maine, it was Pineland Center. Even in the best conditions, these institutions were under-funded, under-staffed and over-crowded. These children would face a lifetime of neglect, in a grim building.
A group of parents stood together and said - not my child. They met in the basement of a church in Durham and dreamed of a better life for their kids. On March 8, 1954 they officially incorporated into a nonprofit to form a school for children with disabilities. It was the first of its kind in the state. The very idea that these children could be educated, and they could be a part of society, was revolutionary.
This group would do more than form the Great Bay School for their own children, they became advocates. Great Bay created the documentary "Help Wanted" which followed a day in the life of people living in the Laconia State School. The film was shown to community groups to educate the public and ask for their help in improving the conditions for people with disabilities. We became major players in a movement that would eventually shut down the institution system.
Great Bay parents would lobby for bringing special education into the public schools. Again, the idea that these children could attend school with their peers was unheard of at the time.
As the children of Great Bay grew up, the organization adapted to their needs. We created workshops and job training for our students as they became adults. These workshops accepted work from outside employers and provided a space where individuals with disabilities could earn a paycheck, and be a productive part of the community.
Great Bay never stopped innovating. As the needs of our members and their families changed, so did we. The school grew into what is today our community supports for adults. Workshops are now our employment programs. Six years ago we expanded into Maine, which allowed us to offer independent living and case management supports as well.
2020 was just another hurdle for us, and given the history of GBS, it is no surprise we met it head on. We made the decision in March 2020 to suspend our in-person community supports. The decision was made for the good of our clients and our staff, without knowing what came next. Instead of fretting, our community services team planned. Within 72 hours we were back in operation with a remote program.
Our clients and their families adapted just as quickly, and our Zoom classes were quickly full of familiar smiles. Jumping on a call with our clients is full of friends calling hello to each other, asking about their evening, their family. It feels like a morning at GBS, if it looks a bit different.
It's thanks to the ingenuity of our staff and the determination of our clients and families that we continue on a strong path today. We're offering a diverse menu of online classes and activities - from STEM workshops to money management and ASL; yoga classes, sing-a-longs, trivia games and bingo. Our staff are leading one-on-one or small group activities like hiking, ice fishing, art en plein air, and more.
As we approach our 67th anniversary next week, our founding families would be proud of the work that we carry on today. The dream of those nine families now supports more than 300 individuals. For more than six decades, even through a pandemic, Great Bay continues our commitment to those we serve.
- Elizabeth Worboys Burr, Director of Mission Advancement
Resources around the COVID-19 vaccination process and impacts on the Intellectual & Developmental Disability (IDD) community
Great Bay Services staff and our peers who also work with folks with Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities (IDD) are now receiving our first vaccination shots, and we are told to expect that soon vaccination shots will be available to everyone we support. Please note that we will not be delivering the vaccine on-site at GBS. Please ask your case manager and/or primary care physician for information about vaccine delivery.
The decision of whether or not to get the COVID-19 vaccine is a personal one, and we at Great Bay Services recommend that you speak to your medical provider(s) and to your loved ones about this important decision.
In order to assist you in having these conversations, we have compiled the following resources which may help you in thinking about and talking through the COVID-19 vaccine and related subjects.
- Pam Layne, Executive Director
The beginning of a new year is a wonderful time for many people to look ahead to goals they want to accomplish over the next 12 months, but 2021 is beginning in the same unusual way that 2020 ended due to the pandemic. The uncertainty of when vaccines will be available to large numbers of people and questions about how this will affect our lives on a daily basis makes it difficult to look ahead. So, one way to adjust how we create goals this year is to focus on our personal wellness.