If you go

What: 50th anniversary celebration for Imagine!

When: 2-5 p.m. Aug. 4

Where: Millennium Harvest House Courtyard, 1345 28th St., Boulder

Cost: Free

Etc.: A video that traces the history of Imagine! will be shown; Twisted Pine Brewery will make available its specially created Imagine! Celebration Ale

Info: imaginecolorado.org

More than 50 years ago, Bill and Helen Schmalhorst faced a dilemma not uncommon to parents of developmentally disabled children at that time: whether to place their two young sons, Doug and David, in an institution for the mentally retarded, as the condition was then called.

Doug had struggled in kindergarten.

"He just didn't do very well," says his father, Bill. "They thought it would be good for him to repeat."

When Doug still was not able to do kindergarten-level work, the school suggested he be tested. The Schmalhorsts took Doug and his younger brother by two years, Dave, to a clinic in Denver for an evaluation. The diagnosis:

Mentally retarded.

"That sure threw us for a loop," Schmalhorst says. "They recommended (the boys) be placed in a facility. "They told us the longer we put it off, the worse it was going to be."

The advice the family received was routine in those days. Parents of mentally disabled children were told that the people staffing the homes were experts at caring for them, says Mark Emery, chief executive officer at Imagine! "People wanted to believe what we were told was real, that institutional settings were clean, with lots of good things going on, and safe."

Imagine! is a not-for-profit group that serves children and adults with cognitive, developmental, physical, and health-related needs, and it is marking its 50th year. In 1963, the agency served 100 people. This year, Imagine! will help more than 2,850 clients and their families in Boulder and Broomfield counties.

The agency's history reflects the sea change in attitudes toward people with disabilities, a change shaped by lawmakers who put in place a legal framework to ensure education and other services, media who exposed the horrors of institutional life, educators, health professionals and, perhaps most important of all, parents who demanded and eventually got a better life for their children.

A transformation

The Schmalhorsts faced the most crucial decision of their lives a couple of years before Imagine! got its start.

While schools for children with special needs existed in some places, including Boulder, the idea that disabled people should be fully integrated into the community at large was not a mainstream belief.

The Schmalhorsts went so far as to visit a facility in Arvada and even put the boys' names on the waiting list. But the parents couldn't bear the idea of sending their much-loved sons away to live with strangers.

"We decided we didn't want to put the boys in a situation like that," Schmalhorst says. "We kept them at home."

Fortunately for them, times were changing.

Living, and working, together

Integrating disabled people into the larger community is part and parcel of Imagine!'s mission, says Emery, the group's CEO. After its founding, Imagine! continued to grow, serving 250 by 1975 and 420 in 1980. In 1984, then named the Developmental Disabilities Center, the group began its adult day-services program, which included educational and enrichment experiences. It also was the beginning of the Labor Source program, which works with the community to place clients in jobs. The group changed its name to Imagine! in 2002.

Emery says the fruits of national and local efforts are obvious, and not just in the lives of those who are disabled and their families.

Ed Schlichting rehearses his part in "Hotel Transylvania," a production that was staged at the Broomfield Auditorium on March 1 by Out and About
Ed Schlichting rehearses his part in "Hotel Transylvania," a production that was staged at the Broomfield Auditorium on March 1 by Out and About Centre Stage, a program of Imagine! Schlichting, who has been an Imagine! client for 39 years, calls performing in the play one of his favorite things. (Camera File Photo)

"(Those) who were in public education along with kids with developmental disabilities, they are now adults," he says. "They never saw anything different. They expect people with disabilities to be around."

That includes participation in the workplace.

Imagine! serves clients with a wide range of abilities. Some workers need technological adaptations to do the job. Others need training, which Imagine! helps coordinate. Some of the more severely affected clients work in jobs called "carve outs." Those are jobs that could be more easily done by the firm's regular employees. However, in helping a disabled person work, there is value for the client, the employer and the broader community, Emery says.

"When supportive employment came to life 30 years ago, one of the methods was (that companies) carved out a piece of a job (for a disabled person.)," Emery says. "They don't have to do this, but they see a merit and benefit to their company. There's been a culture change in the United States. The public (values) social responsibility."

In addition, the community gains a contributing citizen, says Fred Hobbs, director of public relations for Imagine!

"They are earning a paycheck and spending their hard-earned money in the community," he says. "That's what we expect from everybody. When it works, everybody wins. It's not a cliche."

Emery puts it this way: "There's a great deal of pride. I think day services are fine, but the best things people can do is contribute to the community. They're not just allowed to be here."

They work, he says.

Ed Schlichting has been an Imagine! client for 39 years. During that time, he has worked in the Boulder County Sheltered Workshop -- where he also served on the board of directors -- medaled in softball at the Special Olympics and currently works at Applied Trust, a computer security company, where he says he is a troubleshooter.

"I help out with people looking at the computers," he says.

Schlichting also is an amateur radio operator, but his favorite recent activity was acting in a play performed at the Broomfield Auditorium.

"My very big line was: 'Oh, my aching back. Seven pieces of luggage, but look at this, a $900 tip!' " he says.

Schlichting is looking forward to an Aug. 4 community gathering for Imagine! that will mark its 50 years, with 50 stories from the group's history.

"I'll meet people. I get to be a photographer," Schlichting says.

Looking to the future

Gaining rights

1961: President John F. Kennedy convenes a panel of experts to develop a plan to combat mental retardation.

1963: Federal money is allocated for people with mental disabilities. In Colorado, legislation is passed to create a pilot program for community centers to serve the disabled, and Boulder was chosen as the site for the program. The Boulder County Interagency and Citizens Council on Mental Retardation is formed, marking the beginnings of today's Imagine!

1965: In Colorado, a pilot program successfully moves 90 residents from an institution in Fort Logan into the community.

1968: A Colorado survey increases awareness, showing that 74 percent of people living in institutions in the state have no contact with the people outside the facility.

1972: An expose by Geraldo Rivera, an investigative reporter for WABC-TV in New York, exposes overcrowding, poor sanitation and abuse at a New Jersey facility for people with intellectual disabilities.

Supplemental Security Income becomes available as a part of Social Security to help with the financial support of disabled adults.

1975: A federal law is passed to require all public schools accepting federal funds to provide equal access to education for children with physical and developmental disabilities.

1990: President George H.W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Source: Imagine!

Imagine! runs two Smart Homes, group homes that are wired in sophisticated ways tailored to the residents. For example, the stove might not turn on for certain residents. The location of each person is monitored, and various adaptive technologies, along with staff members, help people to function at their best, which allows as much independence as possible.

The goal of the program is to test technologies for use at home and in small group homes, as well. As baby boomers begin to age, Emery says some of the types of technology being used in the Imagine! Smart Homes might be adaptable to a wide variety of needs.

"The number of caregivers will continue to shrink," says Hobbs, the director of public relations. "Which is why we have been exploring the use of technology. It offers at least one solution to the combination of bigger need and smaller pool of people to provide those services."

Emery says Imagine! has been fortunate throughout its history to be in Boulder. Its use of adaptive technologies, for example, gets a big boost from its proximity to the University of Colorado, especially its Coleman Institute. Local business support also has played a key role in helping to integrate Imagine! clients into the community, Emery says.

Imagine! continues to move toward giving clients more choices and allowing them to be more self-directed in choosing services. While work is still needed in adapting to changing needs of clients -- the growing number of adults on the autism spectrum who will need services, for example -- the outlook is so much more hopeful than it was 50 years ago.

And Doug and David Schmalhorst, whose parents decided not to institutionalize them? Both are Imagine! clients and have held various jobs, including janitorial work and at a sheltered workshop. With the help of Imagine! they live separately from their parents, with whom they attend church and see at least once a week, according to Bill Schmalhorst.

"I think it's good for them to get used to living without us ... We won't always be here," says Schmalhorst, 86.

He adds that he's grateful to live in such a supportive community.

"Thinking back over their lives and that first recommendation that we put the boys in an institution, how happy we (are) that we didn't do anything like that. They have come along so well."