HANFORD — There’s a good reason Catherine Smith founded a Hanford home for developmentally disabled adults in 1983.
She was an orphan at age 9, in Tulare, after her mother died. She never knew her father. A Tulare couple took her in, became her guardians, raised her.
“I was cared for and I was nourished,” she said. “I understand what it’s like to be out there, to be taken in and to be well-cared for.”
Smith, 74, knows what it’s like to be in need and to be cared for by people who aren't blood relatives. She holds that hard-knocks experience directly responsible for what followed.
As a young adult, attending church in Tulare and teaching a Sunday school class, she noticed that two students were developmentally disabled. She could see that they appreciated being part of a regular group, interacting and being around people without developmental disabilities.
She married Lee Smith, a Hanford resident, in 1961, then spent the next 22 years working as a psychiatry technician at what is now Porterville Developmental Center. She remembers being one of 6-7 supervisors in a room jammed with 60-70 clients. They would fight, act out, scratch themselves up. Many gave up struggling to speak, because there was nobody to sit down with individually who would try to understand them.
“We had people, no one knew they could talk,” she said. “You didn’t know the individual.”
Sometime during her tenure, state policy started shifting away from mass warehousing to getting nonviolent disabled people out in the community in residential home settings. The rule now is no more than six residents per home.
Smith noticed the trend, thought about it and made her decision. In 1983, she starting taking in clients to her Hanford home.
“It’s a life commitment when you do it in your home,” she said.
She expanded over the years to six homes in Hanford. Ten years ago, she sold four of the homes to her daugther, Gwendolyn, who manages them as Safe Harbor Residential Care Inc. Smith’s business, which now includes three residential homes and a day-care program, goes by the name Smith Adult Residential Care Inc. Medi-Cal pays for the clients to be taken care of.
It hasn’t been a carefree ride.
She recalled trying to open her first residential home in north Hanford in the early 1990s. People in the neighborhood who didn’t like the fact that she was black and didn’t want developmentally disabled clients living near them circulated a petition to stop her from coming. They lost. After Smith got herself established, and neighbors became accustomed to it, she said some people came up and apologized for their opposition.
“We just got it, moved in quietly, kept the house up,” she said. “They didn’t have any blacks or disabled there. We were the first.”
Many of her clients have difficulty speaking or don’t speak at all. Smith, after years of attention and practice, has learned to understand many of them, much the way the speech-disabled physicist Stephen Hawking has a longtime assistant who can understand him. She’s glad to see clients in regular hopes and not held in mass lock-up facilities.
“They work, they have jobs,” she said. “It’s been rewarding to see the progress.”
All told, between Smith and her daughter, they have 64 clients and a staff of dozens of caretakers, nurses, therapists and others.
Smith has gone into semi-retirement now. But don’t expect her to walk away from a life’s work of more than half a century.
“At the end of the day, you can feel good about the fact that you have made a difference in a client’s life,” she said. “That client has made progress, and their life is better because of you.”
The reporter can be reached at 583-2432 and at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SethN_HS.