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
Shannon Cantara is our Adult Case Management Department Head and agency Transition Specialist. Shannon holds a Master’s degree in Special Education, and worked as a Special Educator in both Maine and New Hampshire for several years prior to a career shift to work with Adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Her extensive knowledge of services and supports during the educational years, as well as adulthood, allows her to provide specialized support in assisting families, clients and guardians with a smooth transition through process of working with the Maine Adult Developmental Services Eligibility and application process.