The Southwestern Virginia Training Center (SWVTC) marked its 40th anniversary on May 3 with an informal reception in the facility’s gym.
Director Dennis Shrewsberry described its work as leading people into communities to live normal lives. He noted the effort began with 100 residents and is back to that number unless legislative action saves the center from its mandated closing in 2018.
“Where does the time go? I really don’t know. Forty years ago today the original 100 residents and employees who started Southwestern Virginia Training Center, made the trip from Lynchburg to Hillsville,” said Shrewsberry. He explained staffers were all at Lynchburg Training School and Hospital, at the time one of the largest facilities for people with intellectual disabilities in the country.
He said staff took several months to do the training, receive training, orientation and to have a support group. They also selected those first 100 individuals to begin a new training center, Southwestern Virginia Training Center. Shrewsberry said the strategy of the Commonwealth then was to try to move people with intellectual disabilities out of larger centralized institutions and into more regionally-based facilities and ultimately into their home communities.
There were three regional training centers at the time, Southeastern Virginia Training Center, Northern Virginia Training Central and Southwestern Virginia Training Center. The initial mission was to identify, assess, admit, train and turn people to the least restrictive, best possible non-institutional arrangement.
“Remarkably we are on the threshold of achieving that mission,” Shrewsberry said. “In 1980 there were about 3,500 people with intellectual disabilities residing in institutions for the intellectually disabled and as of yesterday there were 369, so the progress has really been amazing.”
Shrewsberry said he joined SWVTC about two months after the facility opened May 3, 1976 as a part of the second class that went through in July. He said he was really excited and grateful at the time because the economy wasn’t very good then and he was really excited about coming to work at the center.
“I still had no clue really what I wanted to do in life. So I told myself I would probably be here about two years max and then move on to the next challenge. But most of the plans I made back then didn’t work out that way, and so here I am 40 years later at our 40th reunion,” said Shrewsberry. “Somewhere along the way I guess I discovered that something very meaningful was going on here at the training center and we were doing great things, helping people who needed help, and enabling them to move from the facility and into the communities of Southwest Virginia and to live a life like ours. An Austrian psychologist named Viktor Frankl once said that the meaning of life is to give life meaning.”
Shrewsberry urged staffers to look past the routine and things they do every day and consider the impact of their work at the Training Center.
“This is a rare opportunity to participate in a really significant social movement, leading people into communities where they can live a life like you and me,” Shrewsberry said. “We still have a few years to go, there are still 100 people who live here who we need to transition to the communities. Somehow that 100 still keeps coming up. And how many organizations can you really say have the opportunity to actually achieve their mission?”
He said the Center was “a very special place and a very special opportunity.” Shrewsberry praised organizers and participants at the event, which featured tables with memorabilia on the center. He recognized Dale Woods, former director of the center, whp was unable to attend.
“Last but not least I would like to thank everyone who has joined the journey over the years, the four decades the center has been open and I want to thank you for coming out today,” said Shrewsberry.
Developmental Services Director Parke Quesenberry told participants it was very exciting for SWVTC to achieve the mission and go through the whole cycle.
“One of my greatest memories was teaching someone to eat for themselves,” said Quesenberry. “I was in Lynchburg at the time and I thought it was the greatest thing in the world that they couldn’t feed themselves and then all of a sudden they could. That was a real important time. I wasn’t sure what we would be able to do, what we would be able to achieve, and I found out that just the simplest things, the easiest things to achieve, made the most difference in their life.”