People First of Oregon      

Fairview: The Closing Chapter


Group home rebounds from bleak times

Only 13 years ago, Shangri-La was threatened with a shutdown because of abuses, sanitation deficiencies and other problems.

Branded unsafe more than a decade ago, Shangri-La began a slow evolution that not only staved off extinction but led to recognition as one of Oregon’s best group home providers.

In 1987, Shangri-La was in shambles.

Government regulators swarmed onto the nonprofit organization’s 32-acre campus southeast of Salem, then home to 70 people with developmental disabilities, and threatened to shut down three large cottages.

Thirteen years later, Shangri-La shelters 113 people in small group homes and apartments. Some of the homes were purchased with the proceeds from the sale of the rural campus.

Shangri-La’s transformation reflected a national sea change in sheltering people with developmental disabilities. Institutional care increasingly was rejected by mental health professionals, who favored smaller, homelike living situations for people with mental and physical disabilities.

Shangri-La’s diverse housing system is tailored for people with varied needs.

Some live in apartments, hold jobs and go about their lives with little supervision. Others can’t speak or walk, take nourishment through tubes and have fragile medical conditions that demand intensive attention in group homes.

One Shangri-La home is among a small number in the country housing people with developmental disabilities and Alzheimer’s.

People whose loved ones reside in Shangri-La homes describe a warm, caring environment.

“Shangri-La has always been very family oriented. It was started in the 1960s by families who were concerned about their loved ones,” said Judy Kennedy, whose twin brother, Larry, 56, has been with Shangri-La since he was 19. “The big difference now is that people live in homes that have more of a family atmosphere than a large cottage with 20 people. It really is like a family.”

In the early 1960s, a group of parents banded together to create an innovative center for people with mental retardation and developmental disabilities. Many desired a smaller, homier alternative to Fairview, the giant state institution in Salem.

Amid apple orchards and pastures, Shangri-La set out to provide retarded children with education and acceptance — progressive concepts in those days.

Rejection of mentally disabled children was the norm in the early 1960s. Long before Special Olympics cast a positive light on children with disabilities, many Americans were terrified of physical and mental conditions they didn’t understand. Barred from public school classrooms, mentally retarded children often were shunted to large, crowded institutions.

At Shangri-La, children received rudimentary schooling and tended gardens. As they grew up, Shangri-La expanded into a 70-bed residential and vocational training center for developmentally disabled adults.

During the 1980s, Shangri-La lost its luster. State and federal inspectors repeatedly criticized the center, citing problems ranging from excessive use of force by staff members to violations of state sanitation standards and contaminated water.

Rapid staff turnover and infighting between the organization’s board and a succession of executive directors added to the difficulties.

Shangri-La hit bottom in 1987.

Allegations of resident abuse engulfed the campus. Government inspectors threatened to cut off subsidies due to poor care and unsafe conditions. Family members whose loved ones had spent much of their lives at the rural campus were shocked by reports of squalid conditions, abusive treatment and financial chaos.

Enter Jan Kral.

On her first day as Shangri-La’s new director, she received bad news from state inspectors. “It was about all these horrible abuses and God-awful things,” Kral remembered. “There were no services in place. The facility was terribly inadequate. The filth was unimaginable. No criminal history checks were being done (on caregivers). People weren’t safe.”

Two weeks into the job, Kral was given a 103-page deficiency report. She faced a blunt edict from government overseers: Stop the abuses and make sweeping improvements or shut down.

“I knew it had to change, but I didn’t know how it was going to change,” Kral said recently.

Under her direction, change came fast. She averted a shutdown by negotiating a state-approved plan to fix health and safety violations, refurbish cottages, beef up staffing and expand training.

Even as the old campus took on a fresh look, Kral was making plans to do away with it. The blueprint called for shifting the 70 residents into a dozen group homes that the organization would buy.

Kral solicited private donations and tapped into other funding sources to purchase Shangri-La’s first three group homes in South Salem in 1988. Sale of the large campus to the Salem Fellowship Church in the early 1990s provided more money to buy additional homes.

Today, the corporation operates nearly 30 residential sites in Marion County.

Community homes have fewer rules than institutions, Kral said, giving people more freedom and flexibility in their daily lives. In addition, she said, residents receive more individual attention from staff.

Basic differences add up to big improvements in individual lives. “They have an address,” Kral said, “and they go do lots of things in the community. Plus, we’ve got great staff.”

Hiring and keeping competent, dedicated caregivers poses a chronic problem for group home providers. In Oregon, staff turnover rates average 85 percent a year.

Staff turnover within Shangri-La programs averages 57 percent a year.

Kral said training that helps employees manage their lives as well as perform their job duties is one of the best weapons against turnover. “The obvious answer would be more money, but we get the same rate as everyone else,” she said.

Starting pay for direct care aides is $7.50 an hour. Wage increases for Shangri-La employees are based on job performance rather than tenure. Managers don’t hesitate to fire employees for poor performance, bad attitudes or drug and alcohol problems.

“We’re always going to have turnover,” said Maryhelen Wecker, residential program coordinator. “Sometimes, turnover is not a negative thing.”

Wecker started working for Shangri-La in 1977. She suffered through the dark times and takes pride in how the organization operates today.

Wecker stayed with Shangri-La for a simple reason: “You make connections to the people. Once I got hooked, I was totally hooked.”

This article was by ALAN GUSTAFSON was published in the Salem Statesman Journal, March 12, 2000