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DRC/David Minton

Making progress

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
April, Elaine and Brenda, residents of the Denton State Supported Living Center, make bracelets at Impressions on Wednesday.DRC/David Minton
April, Elaine and Brenda, residents of the Denton State Supported Living Center, make bracelets at Impressions on Wednesday.
DRC/David Minton
Residents of the Denton State Supported Living Center make key chains at Impressions on Wednesday.DRC/David Minton
Residents of the Denton State Supported Living Center make key chains at Impressions on Wednesday.
DRC/David Minton

Art projects impress a sense of purpose on living center’s residents

EDITOR’S NOTE: Families of several individuals interviewed for this story asked the Record-Chronicle not to publish their last names. We chose to honor their request.

Sara Willburn folds her fingers together and regards her nails, which are covered in cherry-red nail polish. The color matches the full-length trench coat, with hood, that she’s wearing today. She tilts her head to watch Leah Wheeler unpack a stack of storage trays filled with beads.

“What color today?” Wheeler asks.

Not all the women seated at the round table answer her.

Wheeler lays out a line of purple beads, alternating large and small, for Vicki. Elaine strings a pattern in primary colors anchored by a blue bead that looks more like tubes. She points out her progress to Susan Serur Dean, the shop director at Impressions on the Denton Square. 

Because Brenda can string so fast, she gets her beads last. She stops dancing to Michael McDonald’s Motown album and sits down when Wheeler presents her with a line of irregularly shaped, earth-toned beads.

The women start talking about Brenda’s new, short and sassy haircut. 

“It cost a thousand dollars,” Brenda says.

Willburn is stringing a vibrant pattern, alternating between a tiny pink pearl and a large zebra-striped orb. When she’s nearly finished, Willburn looks down at her pad and sees a leftover bead. She’s missed a pink pearl in the pattern.

Willburn holds the tiny round at the spot where it’s supposed to go on the wire. Wheeler sees her quandary, and pulls off more than half the beads Willburn had strung.

“Now you can put on the pink one and put the rest back on,” Wheeler tells her.

Did it bother her that she nearly had to start over?

“I don’t mind,” Willburn says.

Today, the women are making key chains. Willburn and other residents of the Denton State Supported Living Center hop on a vintage white bus and come to work at Impressions several times a week. They sit at work tables in two different rooms, creating items to sell in the storefront on the Square or at the shop back at the center. An experienced retailer, Dean browses catalogs for ideas of items to make and shares them with the artists guiding the residents. The artists working with the residents try to foster individual creativity, particularly in the ceramics programs, says ceramicist Gary Chase.

As a result, many of the pieces are richly textured and reflect the personality of the artists — bowls might have feet and vases might have eyes. Sometimes they work together on glazing each other’s pieces, not knowing quite how the colors will turn out, Chase says.

“It’s a little like Christmas when it comes out of the kiln,” Chase says.

From everything sold, the profits go into the residents’ paychecks.

Sometimes a resident will interact with a customer, but often times its Dean out front, fulfilling the role of ambassador, explaining the artwork and answering questions about life at the center.

For now, the store is focused on selling ceramics, Dean said, although last December’s inventory included some craft items from the other shop. The project is being underwritten by a state grant and is part of an effort to continue to integrate the residents with the community.

Statewide, the centers came under fire in 2008, when the U.S. Justice Department found civil rights violations and abusive conditions at Texas state schools, as the facilities were previously called. The problems gained widespread attention in early 2009, after news reports of a “fight club” at Corpus Christi State School. Six workers were later arrested in connection with residents with disabilities being forced to fight each other.

Since then, an agreement with the federal government requires Texas to meet a comprehensive list of standards of care in its facilities by 2013. Monitoring teams have conducted half of the six compliance visits being made to each facility around the state. The team found progress last fall at Denton’s center during its third visit. When finished, the monitoring team will file a final report with the judge supervising the case.

Advocates have questioned whether the model of mass housing can even work, and some families and caregivers are fighting to close state-run facilities once and for all. But others, including guardians and family members of some of Denton’s residents, have fought efforts to close the living centers, including Willburn’s mother, Minnelle Magill.

Magill was a single mother of two when she realized that Willburn would never catch up to her peers. Willburn’s developmental delays included perseverant speech, a type of speech pattern where the person repeats statements or questions, either looking for a response or because it’s calming.

When Willburn was 7 years old, Magill asked her doctor what he would do. He told her about a facility in Denton. She sat down with the 35-page questionnaire that was the application form. The questions angered her — queries about toileting problems and self-injurious behavior. That wasn’t her daughter.  

“I threw it behind the couch,” Magill said.

After a while, she thought about the pragmatism behind the questions. The center needed to know how to care for residents, she thought. She decided to visit the facility. It was like a college campus. Magill’s mother loved it. Her other daughter loved it. They went back with Willburn for the last time, and tears filled Magill’s eyes as her daughter walked away from her that day, she said.

Looking back, she recognizes it was 1964 and things could, and likely would, be different now, even for a single mother. But, the fact remains, the Denton center has been Willburn’s home for 47 years. Magill believes closing the center would be traumatic for her daughter after calling Denton home all these years.

“They made a beautiful life for her,” Magill said. “They can’t lobby. But we [guardians] can.”

The average age of the center’s residents is between 50 and 55, said Melissa Bradley, director of community relations. Given the current regulatory and political climate, she won’t speculate what the future holds for the center’s older residents.

Kristina Ray, Vicki’s guardian and a teacher in the Dallas school district’s transition program, has seen the options change for people with disabilities over the years. Vicki had been Ray’s student in the 1980s. Ray enjoyed Vicki’s sweet disposition, which persisted despite abuse and neglect at home. After an adult services caseworker witnessed the abuse firsthand, Vicki was placed in an Oak Cliff facility that was later closed down. Vicki was moved to a facility in Brownwood, where things went from “bad to not necessarily better,” Ray said.

Vicki wasn’t getting along, but the Brownwood staff surprised Ray when they brought her back to Dallas on a Friday morning in 1997. Someone in the county’s mental health services found Vicki a room at Denton State School before Ray could get off work and come get her. The Denton staff helped wean Vicki from medication and she slowly improved.

“She went from so many incidents that you couldn’t even chart them, to two or three a year,” Ray said.

She doubts Vicki’s quality of life would improve if she were in a group home. Vicki has a boyfriend, goes to church and participates in Special Olympics. Like other residents who are ambulatory, Vicki can walk safely and independently to activities on the Denton campus. 

“She’d be indoors all the time, except wherever she went for her day place, and with just a few people,” Ray said. “This job she has now [at Impressions] — there wouldn’t be anything like it in the community.”

Ray would know. As a transition counselor, she’s looking for opportunities like that for her students all the time, she said.

Vicki enjoys doing things with her hands so much that she has done well even when the work itself wasn’t a good fit, Ray said. Previously, Vicki was building circuit boards and even though the work bloodied her fingers, she enjoyed it, Ray said.

Ray visited the Impressions shop recently. She was concerned the residents would be on display, like the art, but she didn’t find that to be the case. And she saw Vicki grinning from ear to ear.

The program is a start to helping residents integrate into the community. Sometimes the residents step out to get chocolate, candied cigarettes or sugar-free treats at the candy shop next door.

But Ray thinks it may be up to the community to take the next step. The caretakers may need to help, or some other community partners may need to get involved, but a wine-and-cheese gathering for patrons to meet the artists would be a good start, she said.

“That’s what the artists do,” she said.


PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her e-mail address is