The Verland Story

Beyond God's guiding hand, however, those most familiar with the "miracle" at Verland also recognize that its singular, inclusive beauty arises from that most compelling of human initiatives . . . maternal love. Reflecting perhaps the noblest shreds of compassion within the human psyche, Verland was raised from a visionary concept to vital completion by three impassioned women; each with an unstinting belief in her own capacity to make a difference. The Verland Story is the retelling of their consuming belief; of their devotion to God, to the sanctity of all life and to three deserving children whose personal challenges and triumphs ultimately reshaped the destinies of so many.

"Pieces of a Puzzle"

After generations of political indifference and even disdain, there emerged a rare window of opportunity to enact social change. The year was 1967, and institutions that had been previously thought impervious to progress were now vulnerable. Before Verland's founders ever crossed paths, their personal urge to create something pure and beautiful for all people with mental retardation, not just their own loved ones, was burning within their hearts and minds.

 

"Verland might not have come into being if the three of us had not met one another," says Theo Hanzel of herself, Carol Mitchell (now CEO of Verland) and Nancy Chalfant. It was Nancy's love for her daughter Verlinda, Theo's devotion to her son Andrew's memory, and Carol's passion for a young boy named David Tresch that ultimately fueled the groundbreaking vision that became Verland.

 

In retrospect, Theo referred to the merging of their causes as "a great jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces falling together." These were three immensely empathetic women who understood each other's pain and dreams. However, it takes more than empathy and noble intentions to alter a stubborn and defensive status quo; especially to forge the level of innovative personal services now present at Verland. Looking back, there were many fortuitous twists and turns necessary for the personalities associated with Verland to realize the kind of success that had eluded other similarly inspired souls. What was different about them? What was so special about their particular quest that made them virtually unstoppable? Exactly what was it that empowered these three women with the necessary strength and conviction to stand above the fray and protest, "Enough?!" There are few forces in this world powerful enough to have effected the changes that are now synonymous with Verland. Those who witnessed the transformation now understand that divinely inspired, maternal love should never be taken lightly.

 

The Makings of Mothers

For the Love of David . . . The vicarious pain of parenthood is considered by most experts to be unequalled. All the good and bad that your child experiences is amplified on a personal level that was previously unimaginable.

That is why it's perfectly understandable that a compassionate and capable woman in the late 1960's was catapulted into action as she developed a deep maternal love for an eight year old boy living at the state institution where she worked. She found his challenges, indignities and God-given rights inescapable. In essence, Carol Mitchell discovered a new kind of love through David Tresch, and in the process discovered her own path.

Carol Mitchell was eager to start her first job after graduating high school at a mental health residential facility in Western Pennsylvania. The year was 1963, and funding for "patients" with mental retardation was not sufficient to generate any real level of support that didn't resemble benign neglect. Bare subsistence and abusive conditions were evident throughout what was then a highly fragmented and economized mental health system.

David, the object of Carol's passion, had been institutionalized since the age of three. As a new employee first encountering him five years later, Carol was shocked to see this beautiful little blue-eyed boy tied to a chair. Blinded by youthful enthusiasm, Carol untied David and immediately discovered the reason for his restraints. With the flash of a hand, David began to beat himself violently, whaling on his fragile face until it was a mass of stormy bruises. Subject to uncontrollable outbursts which caused him to batter himself, Carol's heart ached for the little boy who could not express the fury that raged inside of him. Over the next several months and years, David assumed greater personal importance in Carol's life, becoming a beloved "son" to her as she painstakingly helped him to overcome his self-abuse. Ultimately, it was their loving, reciprocal relationship that spawned Carol's quest for greater respect for all persons with profound retardation. Certainly, if she was able to affect a cure for David's self-abuse when he had already been clinically dismissed by experts as a "lost cause," then couldn't she also try to affect a "cure" for the ills of mass institutionalization?

To this day, Carol believes that God sent her to David, for it was his "torture turned to trust" that led her to accept God in a more personal and inclusive way. Along their often arduous path, David's plight brought Carol and Theo Hanzel together. It was then through Theo's friendship with Nancy Chalfant that she and Carol became acquainted. All the seemingly unrelated forces and all the essential elements were coming together to create the necessary atmosphere for a progressive notion such as Verland.

The Gift of Andrew

Andrew Hanzel was born into a loving post-war family in January of 1947, an unfortunate victim of phenylketonuria, better known as PKU. His diagnosis was "unfortunate," as his condition was preventable had it been diagnosed within the first three weeks of life. With little public awareness or research data available at the time, Andrew remained undiagnosed until almost one year of age... when it was far too late to make a difference in his precious life. Tragically, Andrew never learned to speak or walk. His family lovingly tended to his complex needs until the age of eleven, but Andrew needed 'round-the-clock oversight and intensive professional care. Without the enlightened, person-centered options available today, Andrew's family had little choice but to institutionalize him.

During these later difficult years, Andrew lived at The Western School in Allegheny County, the very same institution where Carol Mitchell was already immersed in her personal crusade. To be close to her son, Andrew's mother Theo sought solace at The Western School where she started working with forty difficult boys, one of whom was David Tresch, the young boy who had already become the focus of Carol Mitchell's mind and heart. It was Theo's employment at Western that enabled her to introduce Carol to the other key players instrumental in the drive to create Verland.

Unfortunately while residing at the Western School, Andrew Hanzel unexpectedly succumbed to pneumonia at the age of nineteen. Finding strength in her belief that her "child's work on this earth was completed," Theo continued to pour her energies into the mission that she and Carol already shared.

Verlinda . . . Child of Grace

The third force behind this dynamic trio was a child born into a peculiar paradox of privilege and pain. Verlinda Chalfant was the darling daughter of a devoted couple anxiously awaiting the end of World War II to expand their family. Nancy and Henry Chalfant had waited so very long for their new baby; it was only natural that they dream of how perfectly she would complete their family.

In December of 1946, Verlinda was born one month premature. Not long after the elation following her birth, however, Verlinda became gravely ill. When her mother's blood was retested and found to be Rh Negative instead of Rh Positive (which had been assumed since her pre-natal physical), the climate around Verlinda's sudden illness became desperate. Everyone knew it was too late to give Verlinda the complete exchange transfusion necessary to rid her of the destructive antibodies which had developed in her mother's blood during pregnancy.

The short and long-term implications to the Chalfant family were terrifying. Doctors began to talk about the effects of Erithroblastosis (the name for the Rh Factor Incompatibility) on the brain. Finally, one pivotal examination by a highly respected pediatrician confirmed the Chalfant's worst fears . . . Verlinda would remain an infant all her life. Hearing the word "hopeless" in reference to the most precious love of your life is staggering. Their dreams were eviscerated. Their anguish -- palpable. Fortunately, the Chalfants had more resources and options than most. Learning that virtually no support existed for children with profound mental retardation other than large state institutions, the Chalfants chose to care for Verlinda at home with the help of on-site professional care. She died at the age of 26, a beloved daughter who had brought great light and hope to her family.

Through the unique bond that emanates from shared pain, Nancy Chalfant and Theo Hanzel had become friends and co-believers in the essential beauty to be retreived from God's most challenged children. In God's world, paths cross for inexplicable reasons. God has his purpose, and in this particular case, the Western School was its birthing grounds.

Redefining What's Possible

While nurturing David and battling what she perceived as a too often indifferent system of "care," Carol worked on empowering herself. Laboring day and night while raising a family and working full-time, Carol Mitchell earned her degree in psychology, and her Masters in Education M.Ed.. Gaining the respect of many seasoned professionals, she was appointed the administrator of the Allegheny Valley Junior School, a non-profit private licensed facility for people with profound retardation.

Carol, Nancy and Theo brainstormed for hours upon hours, and finally determined that through faith and trust in God, they would form a new corporation. The mission of this corporation would be to build a new environment in which profoundly retarded people, with or without physical disabilities, could enjoy every possible luxury and dignity of home. Quite poetically, the name "Verland" is a composite of the names Verlinda, Andrew and David... the three innocents who empowered three mothers with the temerity to reinterpret what others insisted was impossible.

Breaking New Ground

From the very outset, it was acknowledged that many seemingly random elements had to converge to realize long-term, sustainable success for Verland. Powerful political institutions had to give way to fresh thinking and innovative methods. Quick-to-judge societal attitudes had to be carefully considered and overcome while managing questionable resources in a volatile cultural climate. Once Verland's more obvious external challenges were managed, its founders were left with equally serious internal hurdles . . . not the least being the intensity of family frustration and community distrust that had been amassing for generations. If there ever was a time for God's vision to galvanize the most selfless instincts within the human heart, Verland was it.

Not long after the creation of Verland on paper, Carol learned of some prime property on a hilltop near Sewickley, PA. The property was owned by a generous woman named Helen Grove, an activist who had been deeply concerned for the needs of young people at risk. When Carol explained their need for a new facility to support people with profound mental retardation and physical disabilities, Helen showed immediate interest. She remarked, "I have been praying about what to do with my property. I believe this land belongs to God, and it would be a great joy to me to know that he wants me to use it in such a way. I would like to give it to you in honor of my husband, Don." Again, God's mysterious ways were beginning to reveal themselves!

So it came about that thirteen acres of wooded land overlooking a pond were donated to Verland by a divinely-inspired, community-minded woman. The three founders remain convinced to this day that only faith could have produced such a miracle.

Even God's Miracles Encounter Hurdles

As visionary as it was, imagining Verland was the easy part. It came so naturally to Carol and her associates. . . . as if pre-sanctioned. Building Verland, however, and making it acceptable to the surrounding community was far more delicate. The stigma associated with mental and physical disabilities is still very real today. Back in 1970, these prejudices were insidious, and could have proven insurmountable were it not for the diplomacy and perseverence of Verland's founders.

More out of ignorance than out of malice, many people in the immediate area were convinced that Verland's residents would be mentally deranged, roaming freely through the neighborhoods frightening children and destroying property. Such were the misconceptions that riddled what was already a rocky path, and many contentious town meetings were required before final approval was reluctantly given.

While neutralizing this kind of highly charged misinformation and the damage it can do, the pressing issues of an interim facility, funding and the actual design and construction of Verland took center stage. In May of 1978, The Verland Foundation, Inc. was officially organized, and soon thereafter a temporary occupancy extension was granted to Verland to operate a seventy-bed interim-care facility in the old Allegheny Valley Junior School. Unable to house all the original residents, the most capable individuals were placed in private facilities, group homes and state centers.

Once this was achieved, an even busier time commenced for Carol and her new board. Many issues had to be considered, including architectural plans for the new facility and the sale of tax-exempt bonds to provide the funding. On the day before Thanksgiving in 1979, there was an emotional ground-breaking ceremony in the woods overlooking the pond on Helen Grove's property. Verland was given its first breath of life.

In January, 1981, Verland formally opened its doors to its residents. Dedicated to providing a life of dignity for those most seriously challenged, ten beautifully decorated homes awaited seventy residents with greater respect for their individual needs and desires than ever thought imaginable. . . . or appropriate.

Less Lofty of Issues

Amidst the flush and romance of the grand opening, Verland's first winter was a rigorous test of its logistics and essential viability. Harsh weather and separate living quarters challenged the staff to brave conditions and physical hardship that were certainly non-issues under one, homogenized, institutional roof. Having to dress residents in bulky outer clothing, (including mittens and hats ) just to attend their activities in another building proved to be daunting, as was pushing heavy wheelchairs through snow and sleet to get to the gym, swimming pool, etc. Frustration levels rose visibly.

Still, an indomitable pride and spirit persisted at Verland. Gradually, in spite of the necessary adjustments, it became apparent that Verland's homey environment was benefiting everyone, residents and staff alike. Those who lived at Verland started to experience improved health. Fresh air, more opportunities to exercise, and increased stimulation generated a new level of energy for each individual and throughout the entire organization. Over time, even Verland's greatest detractors had to concede that enormous advances were being made.

Success in the Eyes of Man & God

Today, Verland is a thriving, multi-faceted organization that continues to reflect its humane origins as well as the ever evolving needs of the people it supports. The original campus which was donated by Mrs. Grove now boasts the same ten beautifully decorated homes along with a professionally programmed activities center, state-of-the-art gymnasium, an aquatic facility, an innovative equestrian program and a full spectum of on-site therapuetic and medical services. In addition, Verland has added nearly forty attractive community homes to its continuum of care for people with varying levels of mental retardation and physical disability. Apart from decorating their own bedrooms, going to the movies, enjoying family meals and colorful vacations, Verland's respected community members are also working at jobs, participating in day programs and enjoying fulfilled lives with their neighbors and friends.

To this day, many consider the maternal love behind Verland's painstaking conception to be its defining characteristic; the one thing that continues to separate it from every other provider. Many find this love to be refreshingly evident in the tiniest of details . .. from the floral wallpaper bordering a bedroom to the fashionable shoes and clothes that are tailored to flatter each person's figure. No greater respect can be given an individual than the regard and consideration of a mother's love. Indeed, where else on earth will you find a building named after someone with mental retardation? Welcome to the David Tresch Admnistration Building. The Andrew Hanzel Support Services Building. The Verlinda M. Chalfant Adult Training Facility. Welcome to the carefully considered dignity of Verland.

If we are to be judged as a society by how we treat those most vulnerable, then Verland has even more far-reaching reasons to exist. In spite of her on-going responsibilities and seeming endless battles to protect and further Verland's mission, Carol Mitchell never hesitates to spread her credo. "There must be many more Verlands and many more sanctuaries where people of all capabilities and all sensibilities will be loved," she urges. From reading the smile on David Tresch's face, we know in our hearts he couldn't agree more.