The Blessing in the Countryside
If you weren’t looking for it, you wouldn’t find it. It was nestled in Nappanee, Indiana, a town where you were more likely to see an Amish buggy than a car. It was surrounded by fields on all sides, and the smell of natural fertilizer permeated the air in spring. It had been a school in its former life, and still looked very much like it. The modest building was made of rusty red bricks. The Hartmans had been so eager to start working there that they didn’t even bother to take down the steel letters on the front that read “Union Center School”. The playground still stood complete in the backyard.
To the rest of the world, it wasn’t important. For them, it was just another forgotten piece of land in some Midwestern town hardly anybody knew about. For us, Union Center Therapy was more than just a diamond in the farm country rough. For us, it was a lifeline. It was a family. For us, it was a second home.
My physical therapist, Loren, and his wife, Rachel were passionate, loving people. They happily used their own money to buy the old school and move their family from Elkhart to Nappanee. The Hartmans got immeasurable joy from helping others. They loved their jobs and were incapable of turning any prospective patients away. So, they bought the school and started fixing it up. Even after it was finished, it still looked like a school. Much of the main floor was still tiled, and many of the former classrooms still had chalkboards on their walls. We tried to make it “ours” as much as possible though. Rachel decorated the walls with Anne Geddes photos. Loren proudly displayed news clippings about people with disabilities doing extraordinary things. A bunch of the younger kids helped some therapists paint a tree on a wall with their names and handprints. Eventually, the “great room” was split in half so we could have a pool for aquatic therapy.
Because they had spent so much of their own money on the clinic, the Hartmans lived in the basement for a year or so. Often, I’d come into the smell of their dinner floating up from downstairs. The clinic was always buzzing with activity. Rooms were hardly ever empty. There was always chatter in the great room where most of the therapy took place. Everyone congregated there. The clanking of new equipment could be heard in the hallways as kids and adults adjusted to the awkwardness of new walkers. Soon, the building was full of music, too. After the Hartman family moved, the Smith family moved into the basement. Teresa Smith began giving kids music lessons after therapy. Piano melodies were in constant supply.
To most people, Union Center therapy didn’t matter. It was just a building. To us, it was priceless. To the patients, staff, and parents it was our blessing in the countryside.