Woodhaven celebrates 50 years in Columbia

Woodhaven shifted to a community-based approach to serving the developmentally disabled in the mid-1990s. They now support over 100 men and women in homes and apartments in the Columbia area.

Crowds of people gathered in the corridors of the Parkade Center to mingle and celebrate a half-century's worth of that the staff of Woodhaven have put into caring for developmentally disabled residents.

The not-for-profit organization has been working with businesses and volunteers in Columbia since 1964.

Saturday's celebration included an open house at the Parkade Center, including a performance by the Columbia Parks and Recreation Bell choir and a guest appearance by national disability rights advocate Dick Hoyt, as well as a gala dinner at the University of Missouri.

CEO Mark Palmer's grandfather was the first administrator at Woodhaven when it opened. He said for him, seeing the organization his grandfather ran turn 50 holds personal significance. "If a family member feels good about their son or daughter staying with Woodhaven 30, 40, or 50 years, to me that really says it all."

"If someone feels that strongly about the organization, we've done our job and our mission." Palmer said that even 50 years later, many of Woodhaven's original patients are still being served by their staff.

Many of Woodhaven's patients and their family members said working with Woodhaven's staff has been a life-changing experience. Board member De Minner credits Woodhaven with enabling her daughter Angie to live a fuller, more independent life.

"Angie has Down's Syndrome," Minner said. "She has always wanted to be out in the community. She has always wanted to live and grow and do things that everyone else has the opportunity to do. Woodhaven has really given her that opportunity and more."

Woodhaven started out on a 60-acre campus south of Columbia. "If you had a developmental disability in the 1960s, you didn't have access to the public school system," Palmer said. "Woodhaven had a school on its campus." Palmer said Woodhaven was one of the very first organizations of its kind in an age when mental illness was poorly understood and treatment options were lacking.

Palmer said he hopes in the next 50 years, there will be more jobs and housing for the developmentally disabled.

However, he said one thing that won't change is the spirit that has made Woodhaven a part of so many people's lives.

"It's been a fun ride," Palmer said. "It's been a good ride. It's been a fast fifty years I think, but we've got a long way to go. I think we're always continuously looking for ways to improve."

Woodhaven is a major employer in Columbia and has around 275 staff members.