An Opportunities Inc. official says the Fort Atkinson-based agency will be available to help intellectually and developmentally disabled clients as Watertown’s Bethesda Lutheran Communities moves toward eliminating group homes and many of its services.

On Friday, Bethesda, announced that it is closing about 20 group homes, displacing some 90 residents, and eliminating its day programs and employment services in Watertown and throughout Wisconsin. Altogether, about 190 employees statewide, including at Watertown, will lose employment.

Bethesda College and Bethesda’s thrift stores are not affected by these decisions, and its new residential community concept — Bethesda Cornerstone Village — will have a presence in Wisconsin. Bethesda will be keeping its corporate office in Watertown, albeit with staff reductions.

Officials cited challenging times, with Bethesda experiencing financial loss in light of the low level of Medicaid reimbursement, along with revenue streams drying up due, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic. Costs have risen while fundraising has diminished, they said.

On Monday, Robin Kennedy, vice president of mission advancement at Opportunities Inc., said that her nonprofit agency was made aware of the pending Bethesda closings, and hopes to help those affected as much as possible.

“We have been in contact with Bethesda and shared our thoughts, prayers and support through this transition,” she said.

“We have appreciated a fond partnership with Bethesda over the years, as we have wards with them through our corporate guardianship program, as well as have connected with employment and volunteering through their facilities and thrift store. It is truly unprecedented times for organizations that serve our most vulnerable in rehabilitation services,” Kennedy said.

She explained that there is a process called “Informed Choice” that people with disabilities will be offered as they move to another service provider.

“Opportunities Inc. Mission Services, which include community engagement and day services, memory care, guardianship and a full array of competitive employment and vocational training and transition School-to-Work services, will be available as this process moves forward,” Kennedy said. “Most importantly, we want to continue to be a partner with stakeholders, families, other organizations and, of course, our funding sources.”

She emphasized it is important to remember that anytime community rehabilitation services are limited, it ultimately will impact the entire community.

“I hope people will continue to be mindful not only of those who are impacted directly by the virus, but also the thousands of people who are being negatively impacted via mental health challenges, isolation and loss of dignity and purpose across the country,” Kennedy said. “As a leader in grassroots for choice, we are in contact with community rehabilitation programs across the state and country, and this has hit so many, so very, very hard.”

She referred to Opportunities’ involvement in A Team USA, the goal of which is to unite individuals with diverse abilities and their family members to advocate in a grassroots effort, create awareness in the community and advise those who care for citizens with special needs to ensure service choices and opportunities.

“As a service provider for over 25 years, this is truly devastating,” Kennedy said on a personal note.

Opportunities Inc. is a community rehabilitation program based in Fort Atkinson, with additional locations in Watertown, Madison and Oconomowoc. It was established in 1966 by parents who were committed to ensuring their family members with disabilities had a place to learn, work and achieve independence.

Meanwhile, another nonprofit organization serving this population, St. Coletta of Wisconsin in Jefferson, indicated it also is hoping to provide some of the services and jobs that are being eliminated by Bethesda Lutheran Communities.

St. Coletta President Ted Behncke noted Sunday that his nonprofit organization and Bethesda have been serving intellectually and developmentally disabled persons since both were founded in 1904.

Behncke noted that some of Bethesda’s closures will occur in the extreme north of the state and in the southern end of the Fox Valley, areas in which St. Coletta currently provides no services.

However, “St. Coletta provides both residential, day programming and employment services in the Milwaukee and Jefferson areas and we encourage families needing services to reach out to our admissions department,” Behncke said. “St. Coletta has some residential openings, but will have the most ability to assist in vocational programs and employment services in the near term. Our mission at St. Coletta desires to meet the unmet needs of those with developmental disabilities and other challenges, and we are committed to help in any way we can.”

Behncke said some of Bethesda’s clients and soon-to-be-laid-off employees have contacted St. Coletta for service and potential employment, respectively. He said that with services in Jefferson and the Milwaukee area, including Waukesha County, St. Coletta has a number of job opportunities currently available.”

Bethesda reportedly has community-based housing in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Indiana, New Jersey, Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Oregon, California and Washington state.

According to the Watertown Historical Society, Bethesda was founded in 1904 as Faith House in a rented building on Margaret Street.

St. Coletta also was founded that year, by the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in Milwaukee. Its mission is to provide quality residential, day/vocational programs and services for persons with developmental disabilities and other challenges.

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