Community Living St. Catharines was formed in 1953 by a handful of dedicated parents who were determined that their children would get every opportunity to reach their full potential.
Today, the organization is a regional leader in providing supportive services and housing to people with intellectual disabilities. Those sixty years have been filled with challenges, triumphs, setbacks and giant leaps forward.
Following are a few of the highlights of our journey so far in fighting for the rights and well-being of the people we support.
In the first half of the 20th Century, people with intellectual disabilities were still largely condemned to being hidden away in large institutions, isolated from their families and communities, their potentials untapped and their unique gifts squandered. Some families resisted this institutionalization and eventually small groups of parents began to band together to try to improve the situation. Children with intellectual disabilities were barred from attending the public schools, so education was often these parents’ first concern. In 1953, a group of parents in St. Catharines started the Association for the Mentally Retarded (AMR—now called Community Living St. Catharines) and immediately began to work on creating educational opportunities for their children. They opened the Lincoln Park Community Centre School in 1954, followed by the Lingarden School in 1958. The group started ARC Industries around that time as well, providing job and life skills training to adults with intellectual disabilities.
AMR formally incorporated in 1962. Education for both children and adults continued to be its focus. The Learning Centre preschool morning program began in 1963, and ARC Industries and AMR’s other education programs continued to serve growing numbers. In a stunning victory for all the parents who had worked so tirelessly, all schools for children with intellectual disabilities were taken over in 1969 by local school boards and funded by the Ministry of Education. While parents and groups like AMR would continue to advocate vigorously for children’s rights with the school system, this change was a huge stride toward equality.
Although some progress had been made in moving people back into their communities, institutionalization was still the most common living arrangement for adults with intellectual disabilities. As awareness of the problems of institutionalization grew, public perceptions slowly changed. The government began supporting the notion of community living and integration. AMR expanded its focus to include providing deinstitutionalized housing for adults with the 1974 opening of the Barnesdale residence, a thirty-two bed home in St. Catharines. The grounds were expanded with a pool and pavilion the following year. The year after that, six residents moved into AMR’s first small home on Tasker Street. The house was purchased by the Rotary Club and rented to AMR for a small fee. The second group home on Louth Street, which housed ten residents opened in 1979. Over time, the capacity of the Barnesdale house was reduced to ten in keeping with the trend toward smaller home-like environments.
Meanwhile, ARC Industries was thriving and growing. It relocated to a larger facility on Bunting Road in 1970, with partial funding from the government, and then expanded its capacity again in 1973.
Group homes proved to be successful and increasing numbers of people either remained in their communities throughout their lives or were reintegrated as large institutions closed. AMR began looking at ways to provide support to families facing challenges in keeping their loved ones close. The Behaviour Management Program was created in 1980 to help families who needed assistance in coping with behavioural issues. A new Apartment Program was initiated in 1981 for those adults who were ready to move into independent apartment living but needed just a little extra support. The Tasker, Louth, and Barnesdale communities continued to operate successfully, and the Tasker Street property was purchased from the Rotary Club for $1.00.
The Community Skills Pre-Vocational Program was opened in 1980 to help people prepare for employment either in the community at large or with ARC Industries. ARC Industries opened a second plant on Martindale Road and then both plants merged in 1987.
It was also time for a change of name. In 1988, the Board of Directors decided that “St. Catharines Association for Community Living” was a more sensitive, contemporary name reflecting the Association’s shifts in priority since its birth.
In 1987, the Ontario government made a commitment to close all the large-scale institutions in the province. This was counted as a victory by people with intellectual disabilities and their allies, though it would be many years yet before the last institution was gone.
The 1990’s was a decade of some turmoil as funding cuts saw the closing of ARC Industries in 1995 and its rebirth in the form of an independent packing and labeling company called Rally-Pac Inc. in 1996. The Barnesdale residence was closed in 1990 and eleven new smaller group homes opened over 1990 and 1991. A need emerged for a housing option that was slightly more independent than the group homes but more supported than the Apartment Program, which led to the Supported Living Program in 1991. The Behaviour Management Program was discontinued in 1991 and replaced by an expanded program called the Family Support Program. Finally, a recreational/educational program called Therapeutic Support Services opened in 1997. These closings, expansions and consolidations sometimes made for a painful adjustment, but the Association emerged from the 1990’s with a clear vision and a broad spectrum of programs to serve the diverse needs of the community.
Continuing the 90s trend of change and consolidation, the Tasker Street group home was converted in 2000 to the Respite Home, which provided short opportunities for relief for those who live most of the time in their family homes. The former residents of Tasker were moved to the new Leaside Apartments Supported Living project.
In February of 2003, the Association faced the greatest challenge of its existence when the Ministry of Community and Social Services took over operations in an unprecedented and “patently unreasonable” attempt to hijack the organization. In response, the Association joined forces with its federation partners in a historic coalition headed by Community Living Ontario. Their collective efforts resulted in a legal victory that went on to redefine the relationship between the Ministry and the service agencies it funds.
One final name change in 2004 brought us to our current name—”Community Living St. Catharines” (CLSC).
In June 2004, Community Living Ontario presented CLSC with the “James L. Montgomerie Community Award” for outstanding service and commitment to the goals of Community Living.
The Therapeutic Support Program’s great success prompted a move to rented space at the Welland Avenue United Church in April of 2006, and then a further expansion in that space in July. The program took over Rally-Pac, which dissolved as an independent corporation but retained its corporate name. CLSC purchased the Welland Avenue property in 2008.
The Tasker Street Respite Home was closed in 2006, and the respite services offered there moved to other existing spaces. CLSC partnered with Bethesda to provide an urgent/regional community response bed initially at the McGhie Residence and thereafter at Third St. Louth Residence.
April 2009, the Ministry closed all remaining institutions, a victory for all Ontario’s Community Living associations, allies and self-advocates. The ministry also introduced updated legislation and Passport funding to help people participate in their communities.
In response to the elimination of government funding, CLSC had to wind down services previously offered to adults in Family Support Services. New policy directives meant a philosophical shift from supporting families with intensive case management to assisting individuals to find community resources and facilitating more family independence. Renamed Community Participation Supports and Services, we offered Person-Centered planning for individuals who live in their family home. It was expected that these plans would be used to search for broader based community services.
Children services underwent the same philosophical shift and was renamed Community Support Services.
With the Ministry’s focus on person directed / individualized funding and less block program funding for local agencies, we began to focus our attention on expanding services and supports that individuals could purchase at a subsidized rate. We realized the importance of establishing ourselves as the ‘provider of choice’ to the people we support and their families.
One key strategy was to restructure, retool and reposition service delivery. This included a Capital Project to address the accessibility and complex medical needs of the people we support who seek access to day program services.
With all our accomplishments, there’s still a lot to be done. Community Living St. Catharines will continue to be on the front lines of advocacy and service delivery in the future, supporting people with intellectual disabilities in achieving their potential.