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Washington Voices

Sweet Home Merry Glen Home & School Has Become Model For State As An Alternative To Institutional Care

Residents of the Merry Glenn Home & School are classified as disabled, but there isn’t anything wrong their spirits. It’s not uncommon for visitors to be attacked with hugs and handshakes.

The house at 2917 N. Cincinnati is warm and cozy. A pink piano sits in a living room corner.

The walls of individual living quarters are filled with pictures of family and friends.

A self portrait hangs on the wall of a man who is autistic.

A giant marlin is perched high on the wall in the dining room. One of the residents caught it a few years ago.

“What we’re about is providing a loving home,” said Alma Cory, executive director of the home.

Merry Glen is home to 20 disabled people who range in age from 20 to 60.

The home is a non-profit organization established in 1961 by a small group of parents seeking an alternative to having their children institutionalized.

Some of the current residents have been at Merry Glen since it started.

“I enjoy it (living here) very much because of the people,” said resident Jim VanCurler. At 40, he said he has lived at the home and school for half his life.

The place used to be operated out of an old Quonset on Hemlock, Cory said. The parents were determined to make the place work.

A new facility was built in 1973. An anonymous donor a few years ago paid for an addition to the home. State and federal money cover operating costs. Donations from the community help pay other program costs.

The home has become a model for similar homes throughout the country. It’s the only home of its kind in the state.

Former state representative Kathryn Epton is one of the original founders of the Merry Glen Home and School. Her son, John Epton Jr., had cerebral palsy. He was 58 when he died last March. He lived much of his life at the home.

His cerebral palsy sparked his mother’s involvement in politics.

“When Johnny was born (doctors) told me he wouldn’t live until morning. Nineteen days went by and they kept saying the same thing,” Epton said.

By the time her son turned 11, doctors persuaded Epton to put him in Lakeland Village in Medical Lake. But after two years there in the 1950s, Epton and her husband decided to bring him back home because they didn’t like the conditions of the facility.

Shortly afterward, Epton heard about a Spokane legislator who had proposed cutting food money to Lakeland Village residents. Outraged, she decided to run for state office.

Epton didn’t win the legislative seat right away, but tried again and won the seat on her second attempt. One of her first bills called for the establishment of private homes and schooling for the handicapped.

“Johnny was truly my inspiration,” Epton said. “If it hadn’t been for him I wouldn’t have lifted a finger.”

A plaque honoring her son is on the building’s front door.

Like Kathryn Epton, other parents appreciate the chance to watch their children grow and be productive in an environment that is suited to their needs.

Michael Gibby, 21, has been living at the home for seven months. He was born with brain damage and has a seizure disorder.

Lon Gibby, his father, said his son has done well since moving into the home.

“There was nothing else out there we could find,” Lon Gibby said. “He’s done really well there, and we’re just really excited about it.”

Michael lives at Merry Glenn during the week and attends Libby School. He spends the weekends and holidays with his family.

Gibby admitted that he and his wife, Mary Ann, needed help raising Michael, one of their five children.

“No matter how strong you are as a parent, you can’t do it all,” Gibby said. “It’s been a real blessing for us.”

Like Michael Gibby, some residents are working on their general equivalency diplomas or attending classes at local community colleges.

In addition, the home offers residents who are interested and able the chance to travel. Last year, residents traveled to the Washington coast, Glacier National Park and Priest River, Idaho. Groups of residents recently took in the Nutcracker ballet at the Spokane Opera House, said Walter Hazel, who coordinates the trips.

Merry Glen has a full-time staff of 25 who provide round-the-clock care for residents. Many of those staffers have worked at the home for more than 10 years, said Cory, a 14-year veteran.

The name Merry Glen comes from the classic tale of Robin Hood. It’s the place where Robin Hood and his merry men lived in Sherwood Forest.

Epton said she originally wanted to call the place “Robin Hood’s Pad,” but the idea didn’t fly with some parents.

But Cory said the concept of Robin Hood’s pad isn’t far off.

“It’s about love,” Cory said. “Love between the staff, families and residents.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (1 color)