The Westmoreland Days
In the summer of 1947, Dorothy “Dot” Sawyer, a retired occupational therapist, and Eleanor “Clemmie” Clement, a retired registered nurse, responded to a call for help from neighbors. Into an old six-room New Hampshire farmhouse at the top of a steep, dusty Westmoreland road, Dot and Clemmie welcomed Judy, a six-year old with significant physical disabilities. Soon, three more local children with special needs joined Judy. What had been the 100-acre “Flying Pig Farm” became Cedarcrest, a home for area children with physical and intellectual handicaps.
The idea of a home and school for children with disabilities was a radical concept in a time when such children were often hidden away by embarrassed families. But the need was real and, by the early 1950s, as word of their work spread, Dot and Clemmie were caring for 10 children round-the-clock. To meet the needs of a growing population, Dot and Clemmie bought some additional buildings and moved the children down the road to a larger farmhouse where Cedarcrest remained until 1990.
The financial requirements of caring for a houseful of children with special needs soon exceeded the modest support Dot and Clemmie were receiving from families and a few friends and colleagues in the Keene area. Dr. Thomas Lacey, a Keene orthopedic surgeon who provided some medical care for the children, urged the two women to incorporate so that they might reach out more broadly to raise funds in the community. With the assistance of attorney Earl Brennan, Cedarcrest was incorporated on June 28, 1952.
In succeeding years, as word of the work of Dorothy Sawyer and Eleanor Clement spread, Cedarcrest’s resident population continued to grow, necessitating expansions in 1959 and again in 1963. The first expansion to the then 200-year-old farmhouse added a swimming pool for recreation and therapy and enabled Cedarcrest to accommodate up to 20 children – all accomplished with the generosity of friends in the community. The second expansion added additional dormitory space, office space, and a new kitchen – sufficient accommodations to care for 25 children. For the first time, meals could be prepared on-site rather than up at Flying Pig Farm and then transported down the hill.
It was not until late 1951 that Dorothy Sawyer and Eleanor Clement hired any staff to assist them in their work – the first paid employee was a high school student who took on some administrative support tasks and other odd jobs. Through the years Dot and Clemmie assembled a team of dedicated nurses, physicians and therapists, some of whom became employees and many of whom volunteered their expertise. Dr. Thomas Lacey, along with Dr. Richard Snowman and others, provided medical care for the children throughout the 1950s. In 1960, Dr. Charles McMurphy, a pediatrician, began providing that care, making “house calls” at Cedarcrest virtually every morning for the next 35 years.
In 1969 Sharon Kaiser came to Cedarcrest as a part-time nurse at Dot Sawyer’s suggestion. Dot, who was principally responsible for the children’s care, was already in poor health, and Clemmie, who handled administration and financial management, was anxious to retire. On Sharon’s first day at Cedarcrest, she arrived only to be greeted by an ambulance and Clemmie on a stretcher. Shortly afterward, Dot Sawyer died. After a challenging time for Cedarcrest, Sharon Kaiser became the administrator in 1970 and served as Cedarcrest’s first Executive Director for 26 years afterward.
The creation of the ICF/MR (Intermediate Care Facility for the Mentally Retarded) as a Medicaid benefit in 1971 and the passage in late 1975 of Federal Law 94-142 (now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ) meant that Cedarcrest could not continue operations without meeting new, and more stringent, standards. Friends in the community, through an investment of time, energy and resources, enabled necessary modifications (fire doors and a sprinkler system to bring Cedarcrest’s buildings into ICF/MR compliance). Sharon Kaiser reorganized Cedarcrest’s education programs to institute Cedarcrest School as a state-approved special education program in compliance with IDEA. By 1975, the school moved into a much larger space in a dedicated facility.
The new legislation heralded the end of an era. For nearly its first 30 years, Cedarcrest had functioned as an actual working farm where children were able to perform simple chores. This would no longer be possible. Over the next decade children came to Cedarcrest with increasingly significant medical and developmental needs – many totally dependent upon care givers. The physical limitations of caring for the children in a three-story, 225-year-old farmhouse with its separate school building became apparent.
The Move to Keene
The Board of Trustees wrestled with their options – renovation or new construction – and in 1988 opted for the latter, purchasing five acres of land on Maple Avenue in Keene and commissioning an architect to design a building tailor-made for the care of the children at Cedarcrest. With groundbreaking in mid-1989, Cedarcrest moved from Westmoreland to Keene in June 1990.
The new 20,000 square foot building was state-of-the-art and included specially-designed bedrooms, a nurses’ station, a bathing area complete with whirlpool tubs, a physical therapy gym and two classrooms. Equally important, given the increasing medical complexity of children at Cedarcrest, the Keene facility offered significantly greater accessibility to a major medical center.
At this juncture, the trustees elected to form a second corporation, the Cedarcrest Foundation, to hold Cedarcrest’s physical assets, segregate charitable gift funds from Medicaid and school district funds, and to serve as the fundraising arm of the organization.
In 1995, after navigating these transitions and completing 27 years of service, Sharon Kaiser stepped down as Cedarcrest’s administrator. Cathy Gray, a pediatric physical therapist, succeeded Sharon, and was named executive director that same year.
Gray soon engaged Cedarcrest in a process of strategic planning that brought stakeholders from across the state together to clarify Cedarcrest’s mission and future direction, and to identify opportunities for better serving children, their families, and the wider community. It became apparent that, in less than a decade after the move to Keene, classroom, therapy and activity space were already inadequate to meet emerging needs. In the fall of 2000, the trustees endorsed an expansion plan that would alleviate space concerns and enable Cedarcrest to move forward with important initiatives.
The new 10,629 foot expansion included three larger, more adaptable classrooms, and additional occupational, speech, and physical therapy space, as well as resource areas for meetings, training programs and in-service education, and program support activities. The project also included infrastructure improvements for heating and ventilation. In all, Cedarcrest was able to respond to requirements for more sophisticated medical care for an increasingly fragile resident population, and to accommodate the growing number of requests from families for short-term stays for respite, post-surgical rehabilitation, and hospital-to-home transition care.
In 2006, the trustees undertook the merger of the Cedarcrest Foundation into Cedarcrest (the home and school); in the implementation of that decision, the Center undertook a major marketing initiative to embed in the organization’s name and image its central focus. Cedarcrest Center for Children with Disabilities, the name for the combined organizations, better captured the organization’s role as part of a continuum of care for children with significant medical and developmental needs, and helped diminish any institutional associations people might infer.
Today, Cedarcrest Center for Children with Disabilities continues to provide residential medical care, special education, and therapy services for children with complex medical and developmental needs, including contract therapy services in area schools, a day education program, and intensive nursing support for children who are ventilator-dependent or require IV therapy.
It was perhaps fortuitous that in 1947 Dorothy Sawyer and Eleanor Clement established Cedarcrest at Flying Pig Farm. The saying “When pigs fly” is a reminder to all that when families, caregivers, physicians, nurses, educators, therapists and community members join forces to meet the needs of children with special needs, some extraordinary things can happen. There will no doubt be more extraordinary things in Cedarcrest Center’s future.