From no futures to great opportunities
In the 1950s and ‘60s when Don Gorham and Tracy Altenhofen were born, no one, not even their families could have predicted the success they achieved as adults. They retired from the United Presbyterian Home (UP Home) laundry department after working there for 21 years.
Both men were born with Down syndrome at a time when families were advised to send their children to a public institution or were told they would live short lives.
“People like Don and Tracy were pretty much kept away from everyone and they weren’t expected to live much past 20 because, eventually, they’d pick up something that they hadn’t been exposed to,” said Don’s older brother Jim Gorham.
Tracy’s mom, Sandy Conrad, said she was told Tracy would probably not live into adulthood.
Not only were expectations low for people with Down syndrome, Jim said, “There was that stigma — I felt that. People, they wouldn’t say anything direct to you, but you know people would talk. I was 10 when he was born and I saw the effect on my family.”
The Gorhams decided to keep Don at home.
Don never went to school because there were no programs available when Don was born. By the time Jim was in high school, his mother drove Don to Sigourney a couple of days a week to see a woman who was working with people with Down syndrome. Later he went to a “trainable room,” which was in the basement of the Washington County Hospital’s nurses’ home.
“People who had kids there had to buy the toilet paper, and do the cleaning — the whole works,” Jim said. “So I’ve often thought, if he had had some help maybe he could have learned — you know some of those kids are reading and they are more included in school.”
Don went to Washington County Development Center (WCDC) when that facility opened. While there he and the others he worked with learned how to behave appropriately when they were out in the public, so that they didn’t come off as “so different,” Jim said.
Tracy benefited from the growing support of people with Down syndrome. At one time he lived in Iowa City for 17 years.
“He does very well,” Sandy said. “He is shy because of his speech. He is sweet and lovable and he has a good heart.”
Then the opportunity to work in the laundry department came up for both Don and Tracy.
UP Home CEO Mike Moore said the home recently celebrated its 26-year partnership with WCDC. Moore was on the WCDC board of directors in 1988. He said he saw the potential of people from WCDC working at the UP Home.
“They worked in a sheltered environment and I thought there was no reason why they couldn’t get a job in society to earn their own paycheck,” he said.
Moore said he had wondered if the people from WCDC would be accepted by the staff and residents. He soon found out that he could lay his fear to rest — everyone enjoyed having Don and Tracy and others working there and vice versa.
“We get way more back from them working here than they get from us,” Moore said. “They are so appreciative, grateful and happy day in and day out.”
Tammy Burlingame, vice president of Advanced Employment Services, praises the UP Home for helping to create jobs for people who are facing challenges like Don and Tracy. She said that up to five clients per day can work in the community and they take the place of two to three full-time employees. They get a decent wage and benefits.
Tammy said she learned one very valuable lesson from the people she helps place in jobs, and that is that they love their jobs and show it. “What do I have to complain about?” she asked herself.
As for Don and Tracy, she said there are many employers who don’t have employees who work for 21 years.
Sandy is very, very proud of her son. She said he loves his family and he loves being Uncle Tracy. He spends his days at Lending Hands. While he misses his co-workers, he is enjoying retirement.
As for Don, Jim said, “It’s been a great thing for him, and the community has been so supportive of WCDC, Advanced Systems and programs at the UP Home.”
Don goes to football and basketball games. He has traveled with special groups and has been to Hawaii, Mexico, and Disney World.
Having programs for people who cannot fully take care of themselves is a great relief, Jim said.
“The problem, of course, is as parents age, there’s no one else to take care of them,” he said. “So it’s a great relief for parents to know there’s something in the future for them, to take care of them.”
Jim joined the Systems Unlimited board in 1981 or 1982 and served as president of the board when the group home in Washington and four others in eastern Iowa were built.
Don is also spending his days at Lending Hands. He has lived in a group home since 1979.