Speaking out for People with
 Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Fernald Fighters

   "I came to Fernald to help these residents out, and in the end, it was those who could not speak who helped me learn so much about myself."

By Laura Marmion

LauraMAs a young girl I didn’t know much about the Fernald Center; a massive state-owned property for mentally handicapped adults in the heart of my town, Waltham, MA.  All I knew was it was a ten minute walk from my house, they had a soccer field my team always practiced on, and great hills for sledding. Little did I know, I would grow to learn more about the Fernald Center and its people than I ever would have imagined I would.  

As a teen, I became more aware of the living conditions at the Center. All over the newspaper were articles that said the state was, and is still today, threatening to sell off these state-owned 186 acres of land providing for the needy and mentally retarded adults of the community. After reading many horror stories of abuse and neglect, I revisited the center to see for myself a new view of the real Fernald.  I drove through and saw the once overcrowded, run-down buildings, abandoned just like the people who live there. There were overgrown grasses, and an eerie silence I had never noticed before. After that visit, I hoped I would never return to these “spooky” grounds again.

Years later, in my ninth grade religious education class, we were told many speakers were coming in to speak to us about a fifteen-hour community service project we were asked to dedicate our time to throughout the year. To my surprise, one of the speakers was from the Fernald Center. Her first words were, “This is not for everyone!” I wanted to stay as far away from the Fernald sign-up list as possible, and I knew everyone else felt the same way. At first, I thought I would choose the popular path, sign up for something my friends were doing. In the back of my mind, however, I always knew there was something that intrigued me about the Fernald Center and that these people needed help. Even though I was the only one from my class interested, I decided to be my own person and volunteer at Fernald. Every Sunday we would push mentally retarded residents from their cottages to the morning Mass.

Nervous could not even begin to describe how I was feeling as I walked out of my car on the first Sunday I would be volunteering at the Fernald Center. Up until then, I had been afraid of being around people who were “different”. A large group of us from several surrounding towns met in the parking lot and were escorted up to the cottages where the residents live, to begin the lengthy process of wheeling them down to the chapel. My hands were shaking and sweating all over. I wasn’t sure if I could even grip a wheelchair, let alone wheel one down a hill. I took a hold of one chair and wheeled the resident down to Mass, with my mom’s help.

Once in the chapel, I realized this wasn’t going to be a regular old Mass. For starters, there were about six or seven pews missing in the front of the church to make room for the forty wheelchairs parked there throughout the Mass. Everyone was talking; some residents were even yelling! This was certainly not the serene environment I was used to at my church, but I knew this was something I could easily get used to. Once everyone was situated in the chapel, the singer began by starting up a round of “If you’re happy and you know it”. I was suddenly glad that we came. I felt so good about myself. I overcame my fears and started in on a “project” I knew would become a tradition.

I began to make a routine out of attending Mass at the Fernald every week. I started to learn a little about each of the residents with every Mass.  Although they are mentally challenged, each and every one of them is special in their own way. The many aides who attended weekly Mass shared with me a little bit about each of the unique residents. One lady seems to be one of the most unfortunate residents living at Fernald. There seem to be multiple problems with her body, including speech and physical problems. Ironically, she is mentally quick and extremely intelligent. Although she may not be able to communicate through speech, she is able to communicate by moving her head up and down. When her aide asked her if her name was “Susan”, she moved her head down. The aid informed me that this signaled a “no”. When she asked her a similar question, she moved her head upwards. This signals a “yes”. The interview went on for several minutes, and she ended with a perfect score. This situation showed me that although a person may be physically handicapped this is not a measure of their intelligence. She is just as much of a person as any of us, if not more. Although faced with tremendous adversity, she is a fighter willing to communicate through any way possible. Although physically limited, she is the perfect example of a “Fernald Fighter”, as I refer to them; special people whom I have grown to love for their perseverance through extremely difficult situations.

Volunteering at the Fernald has opened my eyes to the beauty and dignity of all human beings, and the tremendous hope and courage that the Fernald fighters possess. I have become a stronger, more compassionate person, since volunteering at the Center and helping out those in need. Later, when looking at colleges, I found myself focusing on those that had a nursing program because when looking into the future I cannot see myself sitting at a desk all day. I see myself somewhere like the Fernald Center, helping others in need. I love being around people and my experience at Fernald has opened my eyes to what I would someday like to become: a nurse.

I came to Fernald to help these residents out, and in the end, it was those who could not speak who helped me learn so much about myself. I have been attending Mass at the Fernald chapel for almost three years now. It is amazing how quickly time has passed. It seems as though just yesterday I was nervously approaching the doors of the chapel for the first time. Now I can proudly say I am a member of the Fernald Family. As I get ready to leave for college next year, I will always remember the experiences I have had at the Fernald Center and will forever cherish the relationships I have made with the special people at Fernald, my friends.

About the Author: Laura Marmion wrote this essay as part of her college application process.  She is a Waltham High School Senior, and served at Fernald’s Chapel of the Holy Innocents as a “Student Escort” from Waltham’s St. Jude Parish Religious Education Program.  She has received letters of acceptance from ten of the eleven colleges to which she applied. Laura has graciously given permission to share her essay with others.