Building Bridges and Opening Doors: The Enduring Legacy of Dr. Gertrude A. Barber Continues

Let the festivities begin! Friday is Founder’s Day, a celebration held each year in honor of Dr. Gertrude Barber’s birthday and to commemorate our enduring mission. On this day, I often reflect on her accomplishments.

If we take a look back in time to the year 1952, services for persons with disabilities were nonexistent.  As an Erie School District psychologist, it was Dr. Barber’s responsibility to tell parents that their son or daughter could not attend school because of their disability. Parents were left with two options: send their child to an institution or keep them at home.

Both she and the children’s families wanted so much more – thus began the Barber Center.

There wasn’t any funding in the early years. The program was supported by ice cream socials, card parties, and raffles. Dr. Barber used to say that all of their money could fit in a cigar box – and it did! It wasn’t until the mid-’60s that state funding finally became available through the MH/MR Procedures Act, as well as the Department of Education. Fortunately, our programs were already in place and could be immediately funded. One such program was our school. We were designated an Approved Private School, serving children whose school districts could not provide an appropriate education. We were many years ahead of others in the field.

Much growth happened in the ’70s and ’80s. 1972 saw the first men and women return to Erie from Polk State Center on a yellow school bus carrying their life’s possessions in a brown paper bag. Most of them had been sent to Polk as young children because the belief at that time was that children with disabilities were best taken care of away from their families and in the institution. These 30 people were the beginnings of our community living programs. A groundbreaking ceremony was held for our new therapeutic swimming pool and our physical and occupational therapy facilities.

We established an adult rehabilitation, employment, and training center, additional classrooms in our school, an Inclusive Day Care program and a Child Development Center. At times, it seemed as if our facilities could not grow fast enough to meet the needs of the community. By the ’90s we were ready to expand across the state and opened residential services for adults in Philadelphia. Not too long after, we opened the same services in Pittsburgh.

Project 2000, Dr. Barber’s ultimate quest, was our first major capital campaign since 1966. This funding would provide a new school and facility for training. $7 million later… Dr. Barber announced the Project’s success!!

Dr. Barber’s dream was that children and adults with disabilities would be able to learn and grow in their own community, in which they would find acceptance and opportunity. This vision has changed the lives of thousands of children and adults over the last 70 years. Through her example and leadership she transformed a system. But even more significantly, she changed attitudes about people with disabilities.

Following her passing, a group of those who knew Dr. Barber formally appealed to Bishop Lawrence Persico of the Diocese of Erie to begin the cause for canonization. In December 2019, Bishop Persico issued a decree opening the cause for canonization. Monsignor Thomas McSweeney was appointed diocesan postulator for the cause and is the point of contact for gathering of documents and interviews with anyone who is willing to discuss their interactions with Dr. Barber during her lifetime. This testimony will become part of the official documentation considered during the canonization process, all which will eventually be sent to the Vatican.

Dr. Barber herself says it best:

“Our focus has continued to be a mission of faith, hope, and love – to open the doors where they were closed – to bring sunlight where there was darkness – faith where there was despair.

Let’s always lead with a mission to open doors.”

Dr. Gertrude A. Barber, 1995

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