St. Louis Center in Chelsea celebrates 60 years serving those with developmental disabilities

Diane Kaszuba, left, and Evelyn Bowman, right, are pictured with their brother, Matthew Bachorski, in the lobby of the St. Louis Center in Chelsea. Matthew has a rare metabolic disease, phenylketonuria, which causes developmental disabilities. After Matthew’s parents became unable to care for his physical needs, the sisters discovered the St. Louis Center, a ministry sponsored by the Servants of Charity for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live and receive the care they need. (Photos courtesy of the St. Louis Center)

Complex founded by the Servants of Charity offers residential units, recreation and learning opportunities for families like Matthew Bachorski’s

CHELSEA — The first time Evelyn Bowman and her brother, Matthew, made the turn off U.S. 12 onto the grounds of the St. Louis Center, she knew there was something different about the place. 

The Chelsea campus, about 40 miles west of Detroit, is a full-time residential and learning facility for people like her brother, those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). 

The sprawling complex has residential units for adults, recreation and learning opportunities and a full-time staff dedicated to around-the-clock care for the 70 residents who need assistance but can live full, independent lives on the campus. 

Matthew Bachorski has a rare metabolic disease, phenylketonuria, an inherited disorder that increases the levels of a substance called phenylalanine in the blood. Matthew contracted the disease in utero, causing irreversible neurological damage. 

Matthew, now 58, has been cared for by his parents all his life, doing everything from dressing him to feeding him. But as the Bachorski parents got older, Evelyn and her sister, Diane, knew there needed to be a long-term plan for Matthew when their parents would be unable to care for him. 

Christine Lindemann is pictured with her brother, Todd, who has been a St. Louis Center resident since 1996. 

When the Redford Township family first pulled onto the campus of the St. Louis Center in 2012, they knew this was the place for Matthew. 

“We were very pleased with the feeling of the place, the greeting we received,” Bowman told Detroit Catholic. “We were impressed with the spiritual side of the place and how things were run by the Servants of Charity. When we told our mother about the place, she was so delighted to hear we found such a place for Matthew to care not only for his physical needs, but his spiritual ones as well.” 

The St. Louis Center traces its roots to 1960 — back when Washtenaw County was part of the Archdiocese of Detroit. Detroit Cardinal John F. Dearden wanted to develop a place for children with mental and physical disabilities to receive a Catholic education — a revolutionary concept in the days before special education.  

Cardinal Dearden invited the Servants of Charity, a religious institute founded by St. Luigi Guanella in Como, Italy, in 1908, to staff and run the facility. 

The Servants established a two-room school for 60 students. Over the years, more special education programs were developed at public schools, causing a shift in the St. Louis Center’s mission, said Fr. Enzo Addari, SdC, the St. Louis Center’s CEO. 

“By the 1980s, we closed our education program and students started going to Chelsea Public Schools, but we began to expand our program to adults,” Fr. Addari said. “At first, children could only go to school up to 18, but that expanded to 26. So we extended our services to young adults. Then, 10 years ago, we extended our services to adults with disabilities who are agingSo we came up with a vision of the future, the Guanella Village.” 

Christine Lindemann and her brother, Todd, on St. Louis Center’s sprawling campus just outside Chelsea in Washtenaw County. Residents of the St. Louis Center are cared for by a 24/7 staff who encourage physical exercise, job skills training and community service opportunities. 

Built in 2010, the Guanella Village is a series of accommodations for people with special needs to live full-time on the campus in an environment built for those with disabilities. 

The site welcomes those in the state foster care system with special needs, along with aging adults with IDD whose parents can no longer provide the around-the-clock services they require. 

“Our idea was to create an integrated village for people with disabilities who can be served alongside those without a disability,” Fr. Addari said. “From a religious point of view, people have needs beyond physical ones; they need socialization, they need someone to accompany those who are aging. We have 157 staff members at present, working different shifts, covering everything from direct care services, teachers, social workers and maintenance, basic things that need to be addressed in our residential settings.” 

St. Louis Center residents have the opportunity to get jobs in the surrounding community or volunteer at various nonprofits, allowing residents to develop what skill they can to be part of society.  

Matthew is part of the Day Program at the St. Louis Center that does group exercise, field trips (in a pre-COVID world) and volunteers with the Meals on Wheels program. 

“We always told Mom and Dad that we would take care of it, not to worry about it,” Bowman said. “I became Matthew’s guardian, and my sister is on standby. Our husbands take an active role with Matthew, but Matthew has health issues and we knew he would need full-time care. We now have this sense of security, knowing he is cared for well. They let me know Matthew’s weaknesses; if he needs a doctor, I get a call right away. With COVID, we can’t do as much face to face, but we do Zoom meetings once a week. That is a big relief as well.” 

St. Louis Center resident Lisa participates in a basketball drill conducted by former University of Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein, a longtime supporter of the St. Louis Center. 

Bowman said Matthew clicked immediately with his three housemates, who showed him around. When Matthew visits his sisters, they are amazed at his increased physical capacity and how excited he gets when they pull off U.S. 12 and onto the St. Louis Center campus. 

Among the 70 residents, 20 are children who attend Chelsea Public Schools’ special education program. The children, wards of the state’s foster care program, are often victims of abuse, adding another level of care they need, said Christina Ferris, development director at the St. Louis Center.  

“It is a very challenging situation for them, but we are here to provide care,” Ferris said. “All of the children are residents who go to school up to the age of 26. Now we are dealing with the challenges of distance learning; they are very tactile, experimental learners, so we’re writing grants to hire a pair of professionals and provide them with Chromebooks and tools they need.” 

Once residents are 26, they have the option to participate in the on-campus job training program, where they can learn skills necessary to get a job in the Chelsea and Lima Township (where the St. Louis Center is located) area. 

For residents who are not cognitively able to be in the job training program, members of the community participate in the Day Program at St. Louis, doing craft projects and learning opportunities. Volunteering with our partnership with Meals on Wheels is a favorite,” Ferris said. “These are people who rely every day on someone else to take care of them, but they want to go out and help someone else.” 

Matthew Bachorski moved into the St. Louis Center in January 2012, and since then, his development has been amazing, his sister says. 

“All of the guys in his unit are so welcoming, showing him the ropes and where to go,” Bowman said. “For the first time, he has his own circle of friends who look out for him. I never thought I would see that from my brother. When we pick him up, he’s happy to see us. But when we get to the driveway on Old US-12, the smiles just comes back and he knows someone is waiting for him in the lobby. He is very much at home when he’s there.” 

Coach John Beilein conducts a basketball drill with St. Louis Center residents. Beilein hosted a virtual auction fundraiser for the St. Louis Center in October, with one of the items being a dinner date for two with Beilein and his wife. 

The St. Louis Center receives funding from families of residents, the state and federal government, along with an army of donors who fund the overhead of the organization. However, COVID-19 has put a strain on federal and state budgets, causing a 10 to 15 percent reduction in public funding through per diem reimbursements for every resident. 

This year’s St. Louis Center budget was $2.3 million, a $900,000 increase in expenditures, in part because of COVID-19, and loss of fundraising opportunities.  

“We had a lot of expenses during COVID, especially early on, when no one could go anywhere and we had residents who normally would go off site at school, so we would have low staffing needs,” Ferris said. “Now, our staffing needs have increased, and on top of that, people are working overtime. Staff has increased from 100 to 150 employees, along with hazard pay to direct-care workers at an increase of $2 per hour.” 

In-person fundraisers have been canceled, so on Oct. 22, the St. Louis Center hosted a virtual fundraiser for its 60th anniversary with former University of Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein 

Coach Beilein shoots a promotional video for a St. Louis Center fundraiser. Beilein and other Wolverine basketball greats have visited the St. Louis Center in the past and continue to support its work.

Beilein, along with NBA stars and former Wolverines Zach Novak and Tim Hardaway, have visited the St. Louis Center in the past, so they participated in the virtual fundraiser on Facebook Live. 

The St. Louis Center will also have a virtual auction on Nov. 7, featuring memorabilia signed by Beilein and a chance to have dinner with the coach and his wife. More information is available on the St. Louis Center’s website and Facebook page 

“The donors we have are amazing in how much they care about the center, the residents and the family of the residents,” Ferris said. “My brother had Down syndrome; he’s been gone for a number of years, but I know he would have loved it here. When I see residents every day, watching them walk out of St. Joseph Hall, I see my brother in them, figuring out the challenges and just preserving. That makes this all worthwhile. We have an amazing staff here, some really wonderful people who care.” 

Just as the staff become stand-in caretakers and, in many regards, family to the residents, the family members of residents feel they, too, have gained a family at the St. Louis Center. 

“I feel more a part of the place,” Bowman said. “They are my brother’s extended family, and they are my extended family as well. The St. Louis Center has a family association, a group of people with loved ones at the center. We meet and resonate with the challenges other families go through, knowing we are not alone, and the St. Louis Center brought us together. There is nowhere else in the state that has a place like this.” 

The spiritual and emotional core of the St. Louis Center remains its chapel, the place that puts the rest of the ministry’s work into perspective. 

Fr. Addari explains when St. Louis Guanella founded the Servants of Charity — now serving in 22 countries — he did so out of a desire to serve people on the periphery, those who seem left out of society. 

The St. Louis Center brings those with IDD into the community, not only making them productive, proud members of society, but beloved sons and daughters of God.  

“These are children of God whom we are serving,” Fr. Addari said. “We are called, through our vows, to embrace a way of life in such a way that includes those who are left out from a social point of view. When we embrace the teachings of the Lord, through the incarnation of Jesus, we embrace the people, we serve them. And when we serve them, at the same time, we bring about the kingdom of God.” 

Support the St. Louis Center

Readers can support the mission of the St. Louis Center by participating in its fall auction Nov. 7, or by making a direct giftClick here to watch the 60th anniversary virtual celebration hosted by former University of Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein. The video contains a link to where viewers can go to donate and support the St. Louis Center.