Minnesota day activities centers took shape over the years

Day activity centers have long provided a lifeline to friends, employment and community for many Minnesotans with disabilities. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced several of Minnesota’s day activity centers to close, leaving people in some parts of the state scrambling for services.

As Minnesota families fight to save these important services it’s worth remembering the efforts that supported their growth and  influence statewide.

It has been 60 years since Minnesota began to expand a once-small day activity center network. The centers were studied extensively over the years by the Minneapolis Association for Retarded Citizens (MARC). Information from past studies is shared here.

“Until 1961, many parents of severely mentally retarded children in Minnesota had to choose between keeping their child in the home or sending the child to a state institution due to a lack of community services. Day activity centers for retarded children were available in only seven of the state’s 87 counties. As might be expected, most of the existing centers were in urban areas where financial support was available from private agencies. Even then the lack of funds tended to limit the extent and quality of the programs offered and the number of individuals that could be served. The 1961 Minnesota Legislature, acting upon the recommendation of the Legislative Interim Commission on the Problems of the Mentally Retarded, Handicapped and Gifted Children, passed a pilot project daytime activity center statute,” one study stated.

The project was given a $36,000 appropriation,  to reimburse up to 50 percent of operating costs of pilot project centers selected by the Commissioner of Public Welfare. Nine centers were selected as pilot projects.

Minnesota soon would be at the forefront of a national movement. Families around the state took notice, and demand for more services grew. In 1963 state lawmakers increased the appropriation to $155,000 to allow for creation of 14 more centers, through the Daytime Activity Center Act.

By 1970, the state had 91 state-funded centers, serving 1,448 clients in 73 of the state’s 87 counties. Some counties that didn’t have centers sent residents to receive service in adjacent counties. A few counties offered no services at all. the northwestern part of the state was the most poorly served at that time.

Hundreds of clients had been placed in school systems, sheltered workshops, competitive employment and residential facilities. The centers were praised for helping client reach their full potential.

The MARC surveys assessed the growth, development, and benefits of day activity center services throughout the state. Obstacles which hindered effective growth and development were reviewed, along with the effectiveness of day activity center services.

The centers had countless success stories, of people of all ages coming into their own thanks to activity and work programs. Parents sang the praises of the centers and their dedicated staff and volunteers. But the growing network of centers faced challenges.

One was that demand for service was greater than space available, leading to long waiting lists. Facilities were another concern. Only a few centers owned their own buildings. More than half were housed in churches or co-located with other programs. Many who worked at centers cited dissatisfaction with their buildings, with physical setup, lack of recreation space, poorly designed bathrooms and access among the greatest concerns.

It’s worth noting that for the centers, “Average rent and maintenance payments are $177 a month ranging from a low of $31 per month, to a high of $504 per month” in 1970.

After years of progress and change, it is disheartening for many Minnesotans to see the toll the pandemic has taken on facilities. It is hoped that the network will rebound as the pandemic eases.

The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found awww.mnddc.org