Mothers know best -Three women are honored for decades of advocacy

Jane Donnelly Birks, Sally Swallen Helmerichs and Molly Woehrlin are three of the Heroes honored by The Arc Minnesota. Courtesy of The Arc Minnesota

Three women, regarded as among The Arc Minnesota’s earliest and most effective lobbyists, were honored last month at the organization’s Second Annual Heroes Luncheon. In the 1960s, the three mothers of children with disabilities began to make their presence known at the state capitol. Jane Donnelly Birks, Sally Swallen Helmerichs, and Molly Woehrlin are credited with helping to bring people with developmental disabilities and their families out of the shadows and into the consciousness of Minnesota’s citizens and elected officials.

The three were recognized not just for their work but as inspiration and a model to face current challenges and stay committed. As Birks said, “Although at times, it seemed like nobody was listening, in the hearts of parents, the pull of their children’s condition was stronger than the force of despair.”

It was uncommon for women or parent volunteers to be lobbyists in the 1960s. In drawing attention to their cause, the women were as creative as they were groundbreaking. Birks once organized a petition drive to urge legislators to raise revenues for more funding for disability services. Nearly 2,000 signatures were collected. She pasted the petitions into one large scroll and dropped it from the second floor into the capitol rotunda. Helmerichs unraveled it until it spilled out the front door. All Twin Cities news media covered the dramatic event.

“When I started working with The Arc, Sally directed the Community Health Education Network, an impressive library of resources to help people with disabilities develop independent living skills,” said Mike Gude, communications director for The Arc Minnesota. “She spoke frequently to parents about their grieving process when raising a child with disabilities. I quickly realized Sally was a woman of great compassion.” Helmerichs also did workshops for direct care staff, medical professionals, and police officers to work more effectively with people with disabilities.

“I met Jane and Molly when The Arc Minnesota celebrated its 50th anniversary. Jane had been a leader with The Arc Minnesota and with the then-St. Paul chapter of The Arc (SPARC). Jane has a great sense of humor, a strong dose of humility, a talent for telling fascinating stories about her involvement in The Arc and public policy, and an incredible determination to improve lives,” Gude said.

Birks and Helmerichs were volunteer lobbyists when The Arc began having a visible presence at the capitol. They worked with the first executive director, Jerry Walsh. Woehrlin later commuted from Northfield to join them, sharing their determination to change how people with developmental disabilities are treated. A Redbook magazine reporter writing about The Arc in the 1960s stated, “When I first met Molly, I thought she was a pleasant person; I realized after a while that she was a real powerhouse.”

Woehrlin helped break new ground as The Arc Minnesota’s board president, she spoke publicly in 1970 against any new facilities at Cambridge State Hospital. She urged that the hospitals be phased out and called for increased community-based services.

Gude cited several qualities the women share, noting that “They were everywhere and did everything. They found authors for bills, prepared the bills for introduction by legislators, and lobbied legislators to pass these bills. When not at the capitol, they activated The Arc’s statewide chapter network late into the night from The Arc Minnesota office. They did radio talk shows interviews, spoke to medical students, and took turns flying across the state with then Gov. Karl Rolvaag to share information throughout Minnesota.”

They were also very persistent and became known as forces to be reckoned with. Birks described their lobbying tactics:

“[We] roamed the marble-floored hallways and [legislators’] offices . . . [We] becamefriends of [their] secretaries, who gave us access to telephones, committee meetings, and lawmaker’s whereabouts. From these stakeouts, we cornered our prey. If necessary, we stalked them on to the House and Senate floors, a practice that the legislature eventually forbade. Years later, a senator told Sally that she and I were the reason the doors to the House and Senate chambers were closed to lobbyists.”

When the women activated The Arc’s membership, legislators were flooded with messages. During the debate on one bill, telegrams piled up so high on state senators’ desks that correspondence was no longer delivered to the Senate floor.

When they couldn’t reach legislators directly, they organized tours for the legislators’ wives, including a trip to the state hospitals. After the wives saw the filth, the babies in cribs with soiled diapers, and the residents given nothing to do and little care, several became nauseated. One of them said, “The wards were so depressing that I covered my eyes. My husband will hear about this.”

The three women helped expose the isolation and horrors at state institutions, secure millions in funding for disability services, and set the legislative foundation for today’s community-based services.

This article was written with notes from The Arc Minnesota luncheon and the speech that introduced Birks, Helmerichs and Woehrlin.

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