In early 1965, two mothers from Lakewood, Ohio, shared a long evening of conversation and dreaming, brought together by love of their sons.
Marietta Kelly was a mother of nine and head of a household that served as regional headquarters for extended family, preferred hangout for local kids, and way station for traveling friends and family. Kelly was a woman with many skills and many jobs: wife, mom, tutor, paramedic, chef, laundress, event planner, gardener, umpire, veterinarian, plumber, and electrician. She definitely didn’t need to add yet another job, but her son needed help. Brian, her youngest child, was born with severe birth defects.
Like Kelly, Joanne McDonnell, an acquaintance from Kelly’s neighborhood, had a long history of juggling jobs and multi tasking. McDonnell was the mother of eight children, one of whom, 12-year-old David, had Down Syndrome. David was an active, energetic child eager to learn and live life. In 1965, though, David was not allowed to attend public school. He was disqualified from all types of training and education and ineligible for benefits. Turns out, his greatest handicap was not Down Syndrome, but rather exclusion.
Together, the two dedicated mothers hatched a plan, vowing to advocate for their sons and to never stop until they found a way to help others, too. The idea of an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to providing specialized care, training, and treatment for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities was conceived as they talked that first evening. Nine months later, their organization was officially born. HELP was on the way.
Over the next few years, the village of HELP grew. Kelly and McDonnell enlisted their husbands first, followed by friends and neighbors who would join the HELP board as dues paying members. By late 1966, after many bake sales, charity picnics, radio plugs, and even a backyard carnival, the organization was properly incorporated and functioning as an official non-profit.
The first item on HELP’s agenda was the creation of a home, a place of acceptance for the many kids like David. In 1967, in spite of little funding and much doubt, they found the ideal location on the corner of Euclid Avenue and Alvason Street, near the Case Western Reserve Campus. The former funeral home had 12 rooms, a full attic, and a large yard, perfect for the dozen or so children whom McDonnell and Kelly hoped to accommodate.
Over the next year, HELP contacted Senators, lawyers, and philanthropic groups to find money and develop plans. They enlisted a doctor to create programs and procedures for the home. Once funding was arranged, they shifted to find the right person to run the HELP home– Walter Zborowsky came on board and never left.
Kelly, McConnell, and Zborowsky formed a skeleton crew of staff and finished the necessary renovations. In October of 1969, the HELP Foundation (originally known as The HELP Home for Retarded Children) opened its doors to eight children, the first pioneers of the program.
This year, as the HELP Foundation approaches its 55th anniversary, they continue their mission of identifying opportunities for sustainable growth and acting as a leader in accountable, flexible, and responsive services to those with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. Every decision made within the organization ties directly to that mission– empowering individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live their best lives and to be seen as respected and valued members of the community.
The story of McConnell and Kelly — two unstoppable women — is echoed by many other stories within the HELP foundation. In 1993, for example, three families in the rural Madison, Ohio, area reached out to HELP with the idea of developing a unique family consortium that would combine family resources to purchase a home and hire HELP to care for their three daughters. With the assistance of HELP, the TAL (Terri, Annie, and LuAnne) Consortium was born. For over 25 years, HELP provided services to the three women, who became like family to HELP and sisters to each other.
The legacy of the family of one of those women, LuAnne Green, lives on today. The Green family had sold the land of their large farm to create a protected trust to care for LuAnne, and when she died in 2018, a portion of the remaining trust funds were generously donated to the HELP foundation.
To honor that legacy, HELP President and CEO Tamara Honkala and the HELP foundation have decided to build a state-of-the-art accessible “Green House.” This space will be the center of HELP’s new horticultural vocation programming and will provide a sensory-friendly experience within a park-like greenspace.
Honkala continues the work of Marietta Kelly and Joanna McDonnell, advocating for individuals living with disabilities. Known to her HELP family as “Tami,” Honkala has worked at HELP for over 32 years. She started at HELP’s residential Six Chimneys and never left. She fell in love with those she was serving, Honkala explains, adding that for all the work and tender loving care she has put into HELP, she has “gotten it back 1,000 fold.”
HELP continues to have an impact on the community and recently received the Mt. Sinai Health Care Foundation 2020 Maurice Saltzman Award for medical excellence–awarded for the care they have been providing during the Covid-19 pandemic. HELP provided topnotch care during the pandemic, even with program closings, redeploying 34 staff members from closed programs to around-the-clock residential care. “All staff members have stayed on, and services have improved,” Honkala proudly asserts.
HELP aims for individuals to reach their full ability, carrying forward the dream that began in that long-ago conversation between Marietta Kelly and Joanna McDonnell. As Tamara Honkala says, “lives are better because of HELP.” Click here to learn more or make a donation and help continue their work.