The Beginning – Special Teachers for Special Children
“The beginnings of concern for the school-age child who was unable to keep up with the regular class work were stirring in the early years of the [20th century] in Asheville and Buncombe County. A fund that was established by the Murray Family Foundation in 1923 paid a part of the salary of Irene McCloud Wortham, who was interested in teaching a class for slow learners at the Queen Carson School in Asheville. There was no provision made by the NC State School System, at that time, for education of students with an IQ below 75.”
From “The Organization and History of the Irene Wortham Center” by Lucy Schifflin
In the 1900’s, a group of dedicated parents of what were then called “retarded” children began to work for change in an education system that largely ignored them. From bringing special education teachers to Western North Carolina, to finding space for classes, and providing transportation, these parents worked tirelessly to ensure that their children would have the same opportunities to learn as other children for the next four decades.
By the 1950’s, parents of students in these special education classes began to formally organize, and they joined together to form a local chapter of the Association of Retarded Citizens, now The ARC of Buncombe County. Members of Grace Presbyterian Church were instrumental in the early years of the association, conducting rummage sales and selling memberships and merchandise to raise funds, as well as other projects.
In the 1960’s, with special education classes now available at most K-12 schools, the ARC Board now saw the need for a day care program for children under 6 who were handicapped. They established a facility in the auditorium of the old Queen Carson School [where the William Randolph School is now] with the help of local carpenters, electricians, parents, and civic clubs who donated their time, talents, and funds to rejuvenate the structure. It opened its first class for seven children in May, 1961. They named the program in memory of Irene Wortham, who has started one of the first classes for special needs children at the same location in 1923.
Ten years later, the Board of the Irene Wortham Day Care Center purchased several acres off of West Chapel Road to build a new campus that could accommodate the amazing enrollment growth. Opened in 1970, the new facility served nearly 70 children with profound developmental disabilities. It was expanded in 2004 with a grant from the Janirve Foundation, and later an additional location was opened in West Asheville. The two facilities were consolidated in 2015. Today, over 100 children, some developmentally challenged and some developing typically, attend the Developmental Day Program at our 5-star-rated Early Learning Center on West Chapel Road.
1986 – Residential Care Homes Open
In 1986, the Irene Wortham Center [IWC] formed another corporation known as the Irene Wortham Residential Center and opened residential homes for children with profound challenges. First came the Rose Street home that serves 11 children. Next came Azalea Street, which is home for six teens and young adults. Finally, the Dogwood house was opened in 1995 to house six adults.
1989 – Adult Day Activity Program Launches
The Adult Day Activity Program started in 1989 to provide individuals with developmental challenges a place where they could try a range of activities in a safe and supportive atmosphere. The Adult Day Activity Program emphasizes the dignity and individuality of each person while providing them the opportunity to socialize on an individual and group level.
The ADA program was housed in a dilapidated 2,300 sq. ft single story building plus 700 sq. ft. mobile unit until 2011, when a new, state-of-the art, 7,000 square foot Adult Day Activity facility opened. Thanks to funding from the Janirve Foundation, Hillsdale Fund and other generous individual donors, the new ADA Center has enabled IWC to increase the capacity of ADA clients from 35 to 70.
1999 – Supported Employment Program Begins
Recognizing the powerful value of meaningful and competitive employment for individuals with developmental disabilities, IWC created the Supported Employment Program in 1999. This comprehensive assistance program provides participants and businesses with expert support through all phases of employment including evaluation, development, training, and long-term follow-up. This highly successful program has helped hundreds of individuals find meaningful employment since its inception, and has provided area employers with hard-working employees who are extremely dedicated to their work.
The Next 50 Years
Today, Irene Wortham Center meets the needs of almost 200 children and adults with developmental challenges, as well as their families and caregivers. We are proud of our thriving Center which includes our 5-star-rated early learning child care center, the CARF-accredited Adult Day Activity and Supported Employment programs, and three comprehensive, around-the-clock residential care homes.
Irene Wortham died in 1926, but she would be amazed to see how Irene Wortham Center, its exceptional staff, and the Western North Carolina community continue to champion the needs of individuals with developmental challenges. We look forward to 50 more years of empowering people to reach their full potential!