Madeline Smyres did not think her daughter Nina would live past 6. In the early 1960s, doctors told her that even if Nina outlived their prediction, her scoliosis, an affliction of the joints, and excess fluid around her brain would turn the child into a “vegetable.”
Today, Nina is 50 years old, constrained by her disability but alive and alert. She’s taken trips to Lakers and Dodgers games, shopped at her favorite store, Macy’s, and traveled to bowling meets with the Special Olympics.
“When she turned 50, it finally hit me that she’s not going [to die] before me,” Smyres, 70, said. “She’s lived a whole, amazing life.”
Nina now lives a relatively independent life in a community house with three other developmentally challenged people and 24-hour staff. Smyres credits the shift in Nina’s abilities to the place where she spent 45 years of her life, the Lanterman Developmental Center, a 302-acre campus in Pomona dedicated to the care of people like her.
Lanterman has been home to almost 14,000 people in its 87 years, hosting dances and holiday celebrations for its residents. But memories will be all that remain of the center when Lanterman’s final four residents leave and the gates close at the end of the year.
The center, founded in 1927 as the Pacific Colony and State Narcotics Hospital, was a place of treatment and therapy for people who at the time were regarded as feeble-minded. Only later, in the ‘60s, did the facility become known for research in developmental disabilities. It was renamed after Frank Lanterman, a state assemblyman who authored the Lanterman Act, which granted rights to services for the developmentally disabled so they could live normal lives.
The decision to close Lanterman was made in 2010. It was determined that though the campus — with 393 residents — was the smallest of its kind in the state, it had the highest cost per resident. Since then, clients have transitioned to homes throughout Southern California, a move Acting Executive Director Judi Murray said is a positive outcome of the center’s closure.
“We’re all about habilitation and providing services that will enhance people’s lives and help them grow,” she said. “We wanted folks to be successful in the community and that’s what we’re seeing. We’re meeting our goals, meeting the outcomes we set forth.”
Once all residents have left by Dec. 31, the property will be managed by the state Department of General Services and put up for sale. The plans for the plot of land remain up in the air, officials say. But the last development center that closed, in Camarillo, became California State University, Channel Islands.
Theresa DeBell’s brother Patrick lived at Lanterman for 30 years before moving to a community home; Patrick died in 2000. Though his developmental disability was never fully diagnosed, what he lacked in speech he made up for in facial expression, she said.
“He was different from other people, but we felt very fortunate to have somebody so special in our family,” DeBell, 63, said.
His favorite moments on the campus were in the nine-acre Rustic Camp, she said, where he could play with birds in the aviary or pet the horses in the small zoo. Patrick also loved running under the sprinklers, dangling from telephone poles and buying coffee at the canteen with money he earned through his campus job folding laundry.
DeBell remembers Lanterman as a great escape for her brother, a place where everyone was accepted.
“They really did a lot to train people in the best way of caring for people with disabilities, showing respect for clients,” DeBell said.
Smyres said the care Nina received helped to ease the trepidation she faced as a young mother in her 20s with a disabled child.
“The love my daughter got there, I could never thank anybody enough for what they did for her,” she said.
The center’s closure will affect the final 54 staff members, who will remain employed during a “warm shut down” period, providing outpatient services, until the state sells or establishes a plan for the property.
Donna Tuzzolino retired last month after 42 years at Lanterman.
“It’s a sad thing seeing a facility closing, but it’s a good opportunity for the clients to get these opportunities to go into homes,” Tuzzolino, 64, said. “Our purpose was to provide the services people needed to get them prepared so they could live in a more natural environment.”