Before CCMRS: Family Camps and West Coast MCC
Central California Mennonite Residential Services is a Christian non-profit that serves adults with developmental disabilities and their families. It has been in continuous operation for twenty-five years. Though CCMRS was not incorporated until the 1980s, its roots go back to the previous decade.
During the 1970s, a group of Mennonites who had children with developmental disabilities began meeting for family camps. These parents were concerned about what would happen to their children when they reached adulthood. At the time, there were few options for adults with developmental disabilities besides large institutions. They also felt that the church had not adequately recognized or responded to their unique needs.
To address these issues, representatives from the family camps began meeting with West Coast Mennonite Central Committee, a Christian relief and development agency. In 1979, WC MCC formed a Developmental Disabilities Committee to discover ways to address the concerns raised by the families.
Incorporation, Huntington House, and Neighbor Troubles
In 1984, the WC MCC Developmental Disability Committee recommended the creation of regional non-profits to serve the needs of the developmentally disabled. In Fresno, Jerry Barkman submitted a document to WC MCC that would eventually become the blueprint for Central California Mennonite Residential Services and the Huntington House. He recommended creating a six-client home in the Huntington Boulevard or Kerckhoff Avenue neighborhood just east of downtown Fresno. The home would provide a Christian atmosphere and a family-like setting. The Huntington/Kerckhoff neighborhood was identified because of the strong presence of members of different Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren churches. In 1985, Central California Mennonite Residential Services was incorporated for the purpose of carrying out this task.
The board of directors of CCMRS prepared for opening its first home. In March of 1986, the board identified a desirable house on Huntington Blvd. The board moved quickly to hire a couple as live-in administrators for the house. They also sought the help of an investor group to finance the purchase of property. The property was purchased in July for a total cost of $100,000.
The board intended to open the house as soon as it could receive a license from the state, but its plans were delayed when it became the center of a neighborhood controversy. A group of residents of Huntington Blvd publically accused CCMRS of trying to secretly open a business in a historic, residential neighborhood. They complained that the Huntington House would ruin the character of the area and bring down all home prices. They also feared that persons with developmental disabilities were dangerous. For several months leading up to the opening of the home, letters of opposition and support filled the opinion columns of the Fresno Bee.
Despite the controversy, the state of California issued a license to CCMRS for the operation of a four-resident home. On May 1st, 1987, brothers Tim and Lewis Regier, moved into the house. The Fresno Bee reported, in the language of the day, that a “Retarded pair moves quietly into Fresno Huntington House.” One month later, another pair of brothers, Marvin and Sidney Reimer, joined them.
With the four men settled into the Huntington House, the CCMRS board looked for opportunities to expand. Their plan was to start a network of homes with the same model as the Huntington House: a couple would serve as house parents; the residents would live in a family-like setting, and there might be a volunteer “house sibling.” In late 1987, the board seriously considered opening another home in the Fresno High district, but eventually tabled the idea due to lack of funds or enthusiasm among their constituency.
In December of 1989, CCMRS received a letter from Jack and Lee Hiebert on behalf of Good Living Alternatives For Developmental Disabilities (GLADD). This group, like the family camps that led to CCMRS, was made up of families who had children or siblings with developmental disabilities. GLADD proposed a partnership with CCMRS. One difference between the organizations was GLADD’s interest in creating a program in which residents had their own apartments. Although this contrasted the Huntington House model, the two organizations decided to work together. In May of 1991, CCMRS purchased a ten-apartment complex called Hampton Gate, in Central Fresno.
Like the Huntington House, this new program was designed to integrate persons with and without developmental disabilities, instead of keeping them separate. From the beginning, staff occupied some of the apartments. Unlike the Huntington House, though, the apartments would be run as an Independent Living Service, instead of a group home. This meant that the residents would have more ability to manage their lives independently. CCMRS received its vendorization status from the Central Valley Regional Center in December of 1991. On January 1st, 1991, the first four residents Julie, Jan, Susan, and Lillie Ann moved in. As this document is being drafted, in July 2012, Susan and Lillie still live in the Hampton Gate apartments. The Supported Living Services was named Charis, a Greek word meaning “grace.”
In 1994, CCMRS expanded its Supported Living Services into another apartment complex adjacent to Hampton Gate called Hampton Way. From 1996 to 1999, CCMRS also housed some residents and staff in the Villa Zandi apartments, which are located just to the North of Hampton Way and Hampton Gate. This expansion suffered by being geographically removed from the other apartments and because it was located on Ashlan Ave, a busy street.
Throughout its history, CCMRS has been flexible and ready to adapt to clients’ needs. In 2000, it began considering how to extend its services to women who had higher needs than most of the apartment residents. One of the women who inspired this work was Linda Martens, whose family had attended the camps in the 1970s that led to the creation of CCMRS. In addition, Linda’s father Wilfred had served on the CCMRS since its start and had often held leadership roles. In 2001, CCMRS opened the Charis 2 program, which operated within the Hampton Gate apartments but provided more support to meet the individuals' needs.
In 2001, CCMRS and the East Fresno Kiwanis club created the Charis Aktion Club, which began meeting twice a month in the CCMRS apartments. Aktion Clubs are service leadership clubs sponsored by local Kiwanis International groups in which all the members are adults with disabilities. Many of the members of the Charis Aktion Club came from the CCMRS community, but there were also members with disabilities who did not live in any CCMRS programs.
During its first ten years, the Charis Aktion Club performed many service projects in the community. Some of these included holding Christmas parties for homeless children at the Craycroft Center in Fresno, serving along with other Kiwanis clubs in an annual service project, and donating money to various charities. The club also created the Friendship Park within the Hampton Gate apartments. The club transformed this empty space into a park that includes a sports court, bleachers, trees, and a grassy lawn.