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It all started one spring-time afternoon in 1964, when Paola City Manager Jim Austin and physician Robert E. Banks took an interest in the idea of a mental health facility in Paola. The idea caused them to visit with the late Mother M. Charles McGrath at her office in the Ursuline Academy, where they asked for help from the Ursuline Sisters.

The Sisters were at a point of transition in their mission, as their work in the region’s parish schools were dwindling. The new mission was a welcome, refreshing thought to McGrath.

The facility’s best hope originally came from an act signed into law the year before by former U.S. President John F. Kennedy — the Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health Center Construction Act.

When the founders were deterred by the proximity of the Osawatomie State Hospital, they diverted their attention to the possibility of a center for the mentally retarded, which transitioned into a school specifically for children with mental retardation.

A need for such a facility had been expressed by parents and educators in the community before special education was available in public schools.

The entire idea was spawned from a group of nine mentally retarded children who were being educated in a class under the stage at the Ursuline auditorium in 1959.

The class was moved to the Osawatomie State Hospital in 1963 so the children could take advantage of the recreational facilities, including a swimming pool.

At this time, a group of parents spoke out about the need for a facility specifically for these children. This group eventually became known as the Miami County Association for Retarded Citizens.

After McGrath’s visit from the city officials, she took the reins and contacted the president of Citizens State Bank, L.M. Schwartz. The two eventually envisioned a medical complex to be built on Ursuline property east of Paola. The facility would include a nursing home, hospital, medical office building and the future Lakemary Center.

At this time, Austin had left Paola for a city manager position in Arizona.

Federal funds became available for the school and McGrath and others from the Ursuline Academy looked to Schwartz for help cutting through miles of red tape.

McGrath named the corporation Lakemary Center for the lake on the same property and for the Virgin Mary.

The Lakemary Board of Directors met for the first time on May 3, 1966, when they voted to submit the application for federal funding. The obstacle they faced at this point was raising money to match the grant.

Schwartz and parent Jim Clemens worked to convince the city to issue $800,000 in industrial revenue bonds to accompany the $540,000 grant to get close to the $1,345,000 goal.

The bonds were successfully sold despite doubts from the underwriter.

The project was ready by Oct. 9, 1967, when groundbreaking ceremonies were held by many heavily involved individuals. Construction began a few weeks later and was complete in under two years in May 1969.

The center officially opened on March 21, 1970. U.S. Senator Robert Dole of Kansas attended the dedication ceremonies, in addition to then-Governor Robert Docking.

The center’s progress has been extensive in the 50 years since its official opening.

In 1974, the center’s special purpose elementary school and high school became accredited and were approved by the Missouri State Department of Education. A deaf education program was also added to the curriculum.

The center was accredited for a further two years in 1975. The center was the first of its kind to be accredited in the three-state area of Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri.

An on-the-job training program began in 1980, which was one of the first steps taken toward the new adult program.

The athletics program was expanded in 1982 with the dedication of the Hartley Memorial Softball Field. That same year two adult community residences were approved for construction on Peoria Street as part of a new residential area called Sunrise Acres. The buildings opened in 1983, followed by two more in 1986.

The Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities Services met at Lakemary for the first time. The council’s existence was mandated by federal legislation. Paola resident Viola Davidson was appointed to the council.

After some grants were allocated, the vocational program turned into job coaching and training services.

The Ursa House on Lakemary’s property opened in 1988. The residential facility increased the number of housed students from 32 to 38. Two more group homes opened in Olathe two years later, followed by the construction of a new swimming pool. The pool was funded by money received from the center’s golf benefit.

The center was licensed in 1991 by the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services for its new adult living skills and supported employment programs.

One year later, the Kansas Special Olympics chose Lakemary as the best facility of the year.

New leadership was also seen in 1992, when Bill Craig took over as president when Patrice Schmitz Hall retired. Hall had been president for most of Lakemary’s first 22 years.

The number of residents living in the community versus residential group homes doubled in 1993 and again in 1994.

Lakemary Center adopted a new logo and was accredited to serve behaviorally disordered children in 1994. And in 1995 the Johnson County Service Center was opened as a satellite office.

The center celebrated its 25th anniversary in May of that year, when Lakemary students, staff and their families, in addition to some of the original founders, enjoyed music from the Kansas City Symphony.

The center has since enjoyed an explosion of growth and expansion. The past 25 years have been a time of exponential advances in technology.

The children’s program was approved by the state of Kansas as a dual diagnosis services provider in 1996, which means they are licensed to treat children who have both a developmental disability and a psychiatric disorder. Many children with this disorder were already receiving attention, but the new designation means a higher reimbursement rate and enhanced services.

A greenhouse was built to provide a horticultural therapy program, also in 1996.

A Snoezelen Room was added to the school. The special room allows children with severe disabilities to control breezes, lights, aromas, sounds, textures and colors. The project was funded by the Ronald McDonald Foundation in 1997.

Computers were added to each classroom in 1998. A Sensory Garden was also installed for therapy purposes.

The Infant Toddler Program served 32 children in 1999, quadrupling the number served by the previous provider.

The number of children served at Lakemary increased by 22 percent in 2000, and a behavior management specialist and technology specialist were hired to work with the children.

A new effort called Child Find in 2001 increased the amount of children served by the Infant Toddler Program by 104 percent.

Parents and Lakemary staff began a campaign to raise $1.4 million to build a new gymnasium.

Three years of effort and preparation earned the center Missouri’s Level IV certification for the Residential Treatment Program in 2002.

A new data system was also applied in 2002. It is designed to track student progress and develop treatment plans.

It was a progressive year, as the school was awarded the School of Excellence certificate following its accreditation in 2002.

In 2003, the school received the same award for the third consecutive year.

A new program initiated in 2003 allows treatment through art therapy.

The Founders’ Fieldhouse was constructed in 2004 in honor of the founding families of Lakemary. The gym was dedicated in December that year.

The Lakemary Center and Endowment founding families are Jim and Bev Clemens, Gus and Frances Huber, Loren and Viola Davidson, Steve and Ann McGreevy, Bill and Jean Dunn, Bob and Barbara Metzler, Bill and Helen Fagan, Clyde and Gail Mock, Carl and Beth Gump, Clark and Peg Murray, Patrice Schmitz Hall, Harold and Pauline Schroeder, “Dub” and Pat Hartley, Jim and Elsie Wilson and Katherine Woolsey.

Lakemary students’ state assessments met the Standard of Excellence in seven curricular areas in 2005. It was also the year the classroom computers began receiving Internet access.

In 2007, two classrooms received a digital makeover and were fitted with computer “smart boards.” Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius appointed Lakemary president Bill Craig to chair the Kansas Autism Task Force Committee the same year.

The Lakemary Adult Day Services facility opened in 2009. The building provided expanded service options for adults.

A two-day 40th anniversary celebration in honor of the Ursuline Sisters and the Lakemary founding families was also held in 2009 at the Paola main campus.

In 2011, the Craig Center opened on the Paola campus, expanding the children’s residential program.

Lakemary Center got a brand new look in 2014 after completing a $3.3 million renovation and expansion project. The project included updated classrooms, as well as the addition of the Discovery Center and the Bob Dole Family Center, which created a new front facade by filling in the gap that previously existed between the administrative and school buildings.

The Discovery Center features a variety of sensory learning tools, and the family center gives students and family members a place to reconnect and even spend the night if need be. It also provides a location for therapists to meet with children and family members.

Also in 2014, former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole visited Lakemary Center during a tour of his home state of Kansas, and Lakemary President Bill Craig announced his retirement after 22 years in the position.

Gianna Gariglietti became the third president in Lakemary’s history in 2015.

In 2016, Careers & More program launched in cooperation with MidAmerica Nazarene University, providing adults with opportunities for college-level classes and job training.

Lakemary Ranch opened in 2017 featuring a barn, chicken coop, rabbit hutches, goat paddock, sensory and play garden, koi pond, pig pen, greenhouse, raised garden beds and an Outdoor Wildlife Learning Site (OWLS), all on the grounds of the Paola campus.

In 2018, the clinical team added two therapeutic dogs to the program.

Now, in 2019, the Lakemary team is preparing to celebrate the organization’s 50th anniversary with an open house event scheduled to take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, at the Paola campus located at 100 Lakemary Drive.

There will be guided and self-guided tours of Lakemary’s campus and ranch.

Another anniversary celebration is set to take place from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 4, at the Johnson County Lakemary Headquarters at 15145 S. Keeler St. in Olathe.

Editor and Publisher Brian McCauley can be reached at (913) 294-2311 or brian.mccauley@miconews.com.

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