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'Spirit' on display at community toast


April 08, 2009
For 50 years, "People Serving People" has been more than a motto for Blue River Services Inc.; it's been a commitment to the community. This past Saturday night, the community said thank you in a big way, raising more than $21,000 for the nonprofit agency at a dinner celebrating the "Spirit of Blue River."

When six families, in 1959, formed a school in Palmyra for their children with developmental disabilities, they likely never thought BRS — known then as the Harrison County Association for Retarded Children — would grow to 13 departments serving more than 15,000 people in 19 area counties.

"The passion of these dedicated families gave birth to what we refer to as the 'Spirit of Blue River,' " Daniel Lowe, the agency's CEO and president, told the crowd attending Blue River's third annual community toast at the St. Joseph Catholic Church activities center in Corydon.

Today, BRS provides both children and adults with developmental disabilities several services, including adult foster care and employment opportunities, but has expanded to also provide programs, like youth shelters and affordable housing, to other segments of the community.

"In the past year, Blue River Services has once again served more people in more ways" than in any previous year, Lowe said.

Evelyn McPherson, the agency's director of Community Relations and Fund Development, served as the master of ceremonies for the program but was also one of three "toasters" to speak.

McPherson has worked at BRS since 2003, but her familiarity with the agency began more than a decade earlier, when Blue River helped her son, Eric, who was attending its Rainbow's End Child Care Center in Corydon.

McPherson said she had noticed that Eric seemed to be developing a bit later than other children, as he didn't crawl until he was a year old, didn't walk until he was 17 months and said only about five words when he was 2. Despite doctors reassuring her that nothing was wrong, McPherson said she couldn't shake her doubt.

A couple of weeks after Eric, who was 2 at the time, had been attending Rainbow's End, his teacher, Tina Wright, told McPherson that she thought he may have some developmental disabilities.

"It was like, 'Wow! She sees what I see,' " McPherson said.

From there, Eric enrolled in BRS's Infant/Toddler Program at Palmyra, where he received occupational and speech therapy. Then, when the state passed a law to expand special education, Eric began attending the BRS preschool program at Corydon.

McPherson also praised BRS and Indiana University officials for working with the University of Louisville, which didn't have an autism department, to diagnose Eric with autism. It was a relief, she said, to finally know exactly what she and Eric were dealing with so they would be better prepared to handle the challenges.

"So, I'm very grateful for that," she said.

In 1996, McPherson and Eric became involved with Special Olympics through BRS. Several sporting events later, Eric remains active in the program and McPherson is Harrison County's assistant coordinator for Special Olympics Indiana.

Eric has also flourished in other areas, including attaining the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest in Boy Scouts, a beaming McPherson told the crowd.

It was that passion that convinced Lowe to hire McPherson, despite her having worked in the banking industry for 25 years and not having any human resources experience, she said.

Lowe, McPherson recalled, told her, "The reason I'm hiring you is, when you go out and speak, you're going to speak from your heart and be a champion for persons with developmental disabilities."

Other toasters included Harrison County Com-munity Foundation Executive Director Steve Gilliland, whom McPherson joked is Blue River's biggest cheerleader who is not on staff, and David Seacat, who serves as secretary on the agency's board of directors.

"You could not have sat through what you saw tonight and not be in awe of everything they do across Southeast Indiana," Gilliland said.

In addition to helping the community through its various programs, BRS, with 450 employees (250 from Harrison County) and an annual payroll of $3.3 million, is important to the region's economy, he said.

Gilliland also praised BRS for the millions of grant dollars it has secured for transportation, housing and other programs.

Seacat praised Lowe for successfully guiding Blue River for the past 25 years and enabling the agency to reach out its helping hand.

"I wasn't on the board" that hired Lowe, he said, "but I think everyone will agree that whoever was on the board hired the right guy."

Despite having grown over the years, BRS, at its heart, is the same organization that was formed by six families so their children with developmental disabilities could get an education, Seacat said. The only difference now, he said, is "a whole lot more people are helping in the process."

Other highlights from the celebration included State Rep. Paul Robertson of Depauw reading a resolution passed earlier in the week by the Indiana House of Representatives honoring Blue River for 50 years of serving the community and WHAS Crusade for Children Executive Director Dawn Lee showing a video to be broadcast during this year's Crusade in June.

Perhaps the most touching moment came when the founding families were recognized for the seed they planted a half-century ago. Joseph and Cathy Summers, joined at the dinner by their daughter, Cathy Jo, who attended the Crusade School, were the only founding parents living. Others honored included Donna Fessel, another student and the daughter of Willard and Clara Fessel, and her sisters, Mary Gurtz and Becky Meyer; and Charles and Hattie Bays' son, Eugene Bays, and his wife, Marcella, and their daughter, Kathy Pate, who is a special education instructor, and her husband, Phillip.

The other founding families were Edith and Elmer Bush, Earl and Bertha Keehn and Cora Payne.

"Kathy has a very special place in my heart because she taught my son, Eric," McPherson said of Pate. "And, Kathy, it's truly awesome that you followed in the footsteps of your grandmother."

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