The MENTOR Network

Success Stories

Ken Built a Life of His Own in the Community

In 1970, at the age of 24, Ken left the Cambridge State Hospital in Minnesota and entered the very first REM Minnesota community-based program in Redwood Falls. Today, he lives in a private group home that is part of REM’s residential programs and continues to thrive with the support of his dedicated team of caregivers. Over the years, Ken has had countless opportunities to participate in community life, and he has seized the opportunities available to him to build a life rich with experiences, accomplishments and relationships.

From Institution to Home

Ken was born in St. Cloud, Minnesota, in 1946. When he was four, he went to live with his aunt and uncle in North Dakota. At the age of 10, Ken returned to Minnesota and entered the Cambridge State Hospital, a large institution where thousands of children and young people with disabilities lived, largely isolated from the rest of society. He lived there for 10 years, attending school and living in dormitories that housed 30 to 60 boys and men at any given time.

In 1967, a small residential program for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, named REM, opened in Redwood Falls. Unlike large institutions and asylums, the program placed more of an emphasis on smaller homes and community integration. Three years later, Ken left the Cambridge State Hospital and entered this program. Though he spent 14 years of his life in a large institution, Ken was part of an early wave of deinstitutionalization, and since 1970, he has lived in community-based residences with REM Minnesota. However, many others in Minnesota and across the country were not afforded the same opportunity. For decades, large institutions remained the dominant residential destination for individuals with disabilities. Ultimately, it was the Americans with Disabilities Act that paved the way for the end of these large institutions. In 1999, in Olmstead v. L.C., the Supreme Court ruled that unjustified segregation of individuals with disabilities constituted discrimination under the ADA. In fact, it wasn’t until 1999 that the Cambridge State Hospital finally closed for good—after the Olmstead decision.

Since entering REM’s residential programs, Ken has lived in a variety of different community-based settings, including an independent living program, where Ken received Independent Support Living (ISL) supports from REM in his own apartment. From there, Ken moved to a group home in Fairmont, where he has lived for the past 14 years. Over the years, with support from REM, Ken stayed in contact with his mother, going to see her every year until she passed away in 2013. He also remains in contact with his two surviving sisters; during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have Facetimed regularly to stay in touch. In February of this year, Ken and his longtime girlfriend celebrated their 40th anniversary with a big party. Ken also enjoys politics and follows the news closely.

When asked whether he preferred community-based living to life in the institution, Ken replied, “I’ll take the group home over the State Hospital any day.” At his group home, Ken explained, he gets to clean his own house, go for walks, and work on his favorite activities, like word puzzles, whenever he wants to.

Access and Opportunity

Ken has many hobbies and passions. His favorites include traveling, and he has visited Hawaii, Arizona, South Dakota and Alaska. He is also an avid Minnesota Twins fan, and normally, he attends as many games as he can. This summer, however, he has been catching the games on his radio due to COVID-19.  Everyone—regardless of ability—deserves the right to pursue their pastimes, whether it’s taking in a ball game or a flight overseas.

Until it was closed due to COVID, Ken was employed at a local business, where he did handicrafts. Church involvement is another major pillar in Ken’s life, and he is a valued member of his congregation. For years, he attended the Jehovah’s Witness church in Fairmont. Members of the church have become like a second family for him. When it moved to a town 20 minutes away, the church took the step of reaching out to the staff at Ken’s group home to ask what he needed in order to continue attending church services and participating in programs. They wanted to ensure that their church was accessible for Ken even though he is unable to drive himself. Now, church members pick him up and drop him off from his home.

Ken’s story shows us how much we all benefit when our communities are open, accessible and welcoming to individuals with disabilities. At The MENTOR Network, we look forward to many more years of helping individuals like Ken live life to the fullest in the communities they call home.