STOW: Fifty years ago, a parishioner walked into the Rev. Paul Kiewit’s office at Grace United Church of Christ in Akron, slapped a $5 bill on his desk and asked him to start a group home for adults with developmental disabilities.
The radical request came from an elderly Margaret Leiphart, who knew that in the culture of the 1960s, her death could result in her dependent son Bobby being sent to an institution.
Why shouldn’t Grace raise funds and establish a safe and loving alternative? she asked the pastor.
She waited all of three weeks to ask Kiewit about his progress. He had written a few letters to church and mission committees to gauge their interest but had nothing to report. So she pulled another $20 bill from her purse — her birthday money.
Kiewit was not at all optimistic about finding funding for such a project, but Mrs. Leiphart was so passionate, so determined, he agreed to put her $25 in a bank account so others might contribute.
“What name should we put on the account?” he asked her.
“Hope,” she replied.
Today, Hope Homes, headquartered in Stow, cares for 87 residents living in 25 homes across four counties. Two more homes set to open soon will be the group’s first in Stark County.
Its staff of 200 also operates a transportation service and runs Hope Day Center, an activity program for their own residents and other referred clients.
It’s an umbrella of care Mrs. Leiphart envisioned for her own son, but she didn’t live long enough to see her dream realized. That’s because it took Hope 15 years to open its first home.
Keeping the faith
Kiewit, 89, and still active with the board, said it seemed it might never happen.
“I tried to tell [Mrs. Leiphart] people don’t give to ideas,” he said.
The letters he had written didn’t get the response he wanted.
“They said, ‘When you get this going, I’d like to support it.’ I would laugh and say, ‘If everyone said that to me, nothing would happen.’ You have to have seed money to get something started. If you’re not going to sow the seed, nothing will grow.”
Mrs. Leiphart silenced his pessimism by repeating one of his own sermons.
“I had this speech all worked out,” Kiewit said. “I wanted to tell her to send her money to [a church-supported group home in Missouri] and she listened very calmly to me, and smiled a little bit, and in a kindly way she raised her finger and shook it at me across the desk and said, ‘Rev. Kiewit, where is your faith?’ ”
He had spoken those very words to his congregation.
So the Hope account remained open, and he kept asking for donations from individuals and churches and mission groups.
Seven years later, the account had grown to $14,000.
Mrs. Leiphart was gone by then. Kiewit found a group home near Toledo for her son.
But the woman’s faith seemed to be living on, Kiewit said. How else to explain a chance meeting between a Hope board member and a Stow couple that was seeking to sell their farmhouse and 42-acre property.
The going price for property at that time was $3,000 an acre, Kiewit recalled, but the couple agreed to accept $65,000, a fraction of the property’s value.
When the church couldn’t find a bank to loan money on a project that had no source of income, faith struck again. The couple accepted an $11,000 down payment and a promissory note for the rest.
“We wrote the deal out on one piece of paper,” Kiewit said.
Homes open doors
The Hope board had $3,000 left and used it to start a capital fund campaign.
It took eight more years to raise enough money to build the first two Hope homes. In 1978, the Kiewit Home for men and the Leiphart Home for women opened on the Stow property.
Hope has opened homes in several communities since then.
They weren’t always welcomed with open arms.
In the early 1980s, a group of residents in Tallmadge sued over Hope moving six women into a home in its neighborhood. The residents argued Hope was a business, thereby restricting the use of the property.
But then-Summit County Common Pleas Judge William Baird said the residents were merely doing what other people did at home and not conducting business on the property. An appeals court agreed, and the Ohio and U.S. Supreme Courts refused to hear the case, allowing Baird’s decision to stand.
The current Hope Homes chief executive officer, Gwendolyn Matthews, said that neighborhood’s reaction wasn’t uncommon at the time.
“People would say it’s nice that we’re helping these people, but they didn’t want it in their neighborhood,” she said.
Some trepidation comes from ignorance, she said, from misunderstanding the illness and not seeing mentally challenged people as citizens capable of full and active lives.
People also often fear group homes will be physically neglected and that properties will fall into disrepair, added Barb Tisch, an account specialist.
“But our properties are well cared for,” she said, showing a photo of a red brick home with a manicured lawn and mulched flower gardens.
Modern attitudes have come a long way, Matthews and Tisch said. People are more accepting of group homes on their streets.
There are some homes that are even frequented by neighbors bearing food and gifts for the residents.
“We’ve had them say, ‘We’re glad you’re here, and if there is anything we can do, let us know,’ ” Kiewit said.
Residents stay active
The popular Hope Day Center is an extension of Mrs. Leiphart’s dream to give people a safe place to sleep. It gives residents a daily outlet for “living,” said assistant supervisor Tanya Boyce.
The center, on Call Road, is open five days a week. There are sofas and a TV, but a recent visit found more than 20 clients preferring to be more active. A bingo game was in progress, and tables throughout the room offer space for everything from cards to crafts.
On nice days, buses and vans take the residents on field trips, from lunch dates to festivals. On other days, clients will walk to a park for a picnic.
With 18 years of experience, Boyce said she has seen the day center change people’s lives.
She watched one woman walking across the room, making slow progress because she stopped to share a laugh with one friend, exchange hugs with another, and finally slip into a seat where several more exchanged greetings with her. The smile never left her face.
Months ago, that same woman was sitting in a corner, afraid to socialize with anyone, Boyce said.
“I see people come out of their shells all the time,” she said. They just need to be given the opportunity, she added.
Jim Keenan, a 76-year-old Akron group home resident, couldn’t agree more.
He paused from chatting with his pals to explain how his active life would be different without Hope:
“Here is where I have fun and make nice friends,” he said. “If I weren’t here, I’d just be sitting at home watching TV.”