A research project to learn more about residents of the Vigo County Poor Farm shines light on the evolution of how we care for our country’s population in the most need. Indiana State is also training students to be leaders in the rapidly growing nonprofit sector.
What began as an accidental discovery during a fire department expansion has assigned dignity to a voiceless population and provided insight into how our care of the poor has changed through the generations.
In the summer of 2011, the Terre Haute Fire Department discovered while digging for a water line what they thought was human remains on Maple Avenue. Shawn Phillips, a biological anthropologist in the earth and environmental sciences department at Indiana State University, was brought in and determined they were unmarked graves — nine of them. Phillips also estimated there were as many as 200 more graves in the area.
“When Shawn was excavating, people would come over to the site and say, ‘Oh my aunt or my grandmother … lived there at the old Vigo County Home, as they called it. So there was all this interest,” said Lisa Phillips, associate professor of history at Indiana State.
The fire department halted the project, but Lisa Phillips was interested in these people’s social history and decided it would make a good project for her upcoming history methods class in fall 2014.
“Shawn was done with the archeological aspect of it, and there was all this interest, so we picked up the ball,” she said. “I decided we would find out as much as we could.”
Lisa Phillips and her students consulted the Vigo County Public Library archives, where they went through ledger books, which told the race, gender and possessions of those entering the Vigo County Home, also known as the Vigo County Poor Farm in the early days.
“So you could get a tiny bit of a snapshot of the types of people who were admitted over the years, although the records were fragmentary, so it was difficult to get a complete picture,” she said.
The state archives in Indianapolis provided a few more clues, as did the State Board of Charities’ reports from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century. Every county that had a poor farm was required to report out statistics such as how many people they had and how much money they spent.
They also compared Vigo County’s facility to other county homes in Indiana.
“The bottom line is we could get a basic picture of who was there, which was more evenly divided between men and women — sometimes more men than women,” Phillips said. “We had gone in thinking since women, if they lost a husband, might be more likely than in prior eras to be dependent and be in need of the home.”
But it turns out men — probably living with a psychological disorder, such as schizophrenia, which rendered them unable to work — were, in the absence of any government safety net, living in the home.
Phillips’ class also conducted interviews of people who worked at the home, such as a nurse and physical therapist, or those who visited regularly for work, such as a postal carrier and priest.
“We did our best to talk to them about the conditions of the home, what the people were like, how the care went,” she said.
Public perception of the facility was not very positive.
“People on the street who remember the home say it was considered a scary place. It was an old asylum and a poor farm, and it was set way back (from the road),” she said. “But the people who worked there described it completely different. They said the quality of care was quite good. There might have been a stigma from the general public, but the people who actually lived there and worked there, had nothing but good things to say. It was their home.”
Despite the vast interest and familiarity with the home in the community, students were surprised how difficult it was to paint a clear picture of these people’s lives.
“One of the students said in the first week, ‘If everyone knows about this place, why hasn’t a book or something been written on it?’ Then it was my job to say, ‘Because these are the issues with uncovering information on people who are in unmarked graves or who don’t have families to take care of them or a paper trail,’” she said. “It was good for us to understand that writing history isn’t as easy as it seems or should be.”
Interviews are ongoing, and Phillips hopes to archive them along with their findings on the digital memory website, Wabash Valley Visions and Voices (www.visions.indstate.edu).
“It feels better to unearth some of this history and grant it some importance by being able to tell it,” Phillips said.
Evolution of social safety nets
The poor farm was the solution from late 1800s to mid-1900s for people whose family couldn’t take care of them or they had nowhere else to go, for whatever reason. Locally, it was first known as the Vigo County Poor Farm.
“The reason it was called a poor farm is because it was an actual working farm,” Phillips said. “For most of its history, there were huge gardens where they canned their own tomatoes and produce. They then ate that so the caretakers could say to the state that they’re costs are reduced because not exactly self-sustaining, but to some degree able to sustain themselves.”
Additionally, the farm work provided some sense of normalcy for its residents, which numbered 130 to 160 at its height, Phillips said.
“The whole point of that was also to rehabilitate or to make life normal for people who ended up there so they could leave there and not live there their whole life. It was called labor therapy,” she said.
Usually, a husband-wife team was the paternal and maternal figures that operated the facility, and the residents were supposed to emulate family life.
At some point, the farm ceased to exist, and the facility was renamed the Vigo County Home until the 1970s. It was in this incarnation that Phillips’ interview subjects were working there.
Outside of the home, however, the facility was an imposing presence — and fodder for scary tales, including that it was haunted. The detention cells in the basement probably didn’t help that reputation.
“We know from the history of mental health care that there were people who were just uncontrollable. This was before the advent of drugs — strong, psychotropic drugs that would help control violent behavior,” Phillips said.
While they found no evidence of the cells being used after the advent of modern mental health treatments, “That kind of story would go a lot further than the reality,” she said.
Before the Vigo County Home was demolished and Royal Oaks Health Care and Rehabilitation Center (now Signature HealthCARE) was built on the site, government officials were left to decide what to do with aging facilities that may not have had adequate ventilation, fire escapes or wheelchair accessibility.
“Part of the dilemma for the counties in Indiana was do we tear down the structures and build something new? Or do we try to refurbish the old structures, which doesn’t seem the way that went,” Phillips said. “At the end, there were very few long-term residents, because they had already transitioned into some other kind of care.”
In absence of social security or disability insurance, people who couldn’t work, would end up living there for the remainder of their lives, Phillips said.
“We could trace the change in that type of system to one with social security and disability, where people who are unable to work are still able to live in their homes, rather than go to a poor farm,” she said. “That gives you the ability to take advantage of these things on a more short-term basis.”
In addition to changes in government benefits, modern nonprofit organizations, too, help meet the needs of the less fortunate.
“A nonprofit organization is the ultimate hybrid of a private corporation, like a for-profit corporation, but with a public service mission, like a government agency,” said Nathan Schaumleffel, associate professor in the department of kinesiology, recreation and sport. He is also the campus/executive director of the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance Certification Program at Indiana State.
Since 2000, the number of nonprofits has doubled to nearly two million, he said.
“The most important thing is to ask ourselves why the federal government allows tax-exemption to nonprofit organizations,” he said. “Ultimately, we have nonprofit organizations, because the government can’t or won’t meet all of the human and community needs, and the private sector can’t necessarily provide the needed services and make the necessary profits.”
Because there’s no way the state or federal government can meet all the needs, the nonprofit market does the work using in-kind, volunteer, monetary donations and even entrepreneurial strategies. Schaumleffel cites two other reasons.
Secondly, tax-exempt status exists to assist in protecting religious freedom, so one religious group can’t be treated unfairly or more favorably financially. And lastly, taxing a nonprofit can be problematic when some revenue-generating activities of charitable organizations are difficult to separate from mission-focused donations and grants.
With such a growth in the nonprofit sector, Schaumleffel is working at Indiana State to prepare professionals to lead these organizations. Any undergraduate or graduate student can earn the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance’s Certified Nonprofit Professional credential. Undergraduates can earn the certification as a minor and starting this August, and students can also earn a concentration in nonprofit leadership via the Recreation and Sport Management major. The certification program can also count for half of a student’s University Honors program.
Graduate students can earn the credential through the nonprofit leadership concentration of the online master of public administration degree, as well as any other master’s or doctoral student via an interdisciplinary path to the certification.
“My primary role is to prepare the next generation of nonprofit executives,” he said. When Schaumleffel started with the nonprofit leadership program, they had just seven students. Now they count more than 100 and have accommodated as many as 175 students in 2013 when the program was recognized with the national 2013 NLA Sprint Campus Partner of the Year Award.
According to an independent study conducted by LinkedIn, college graduates with the Certified Nonprofit Professional certification are seven times more likely than those without certification to reach a director-level or higher position at a nonprofit organization. The study also found CNPs remain in the nonprofit sector 50 percent longer on average than non-credentialed professionals.
Schaumleffel recently earned the international “Certified in Volunteer Administration” credential. Fewer than 1,400 people have satisfied the rigorous requirements for the certification.
“I really see myself as a university-based volunteer manager,” he said. “My goal is to facilitate my students achieving learning outcomes by establishing strong, sustainable university-community partnerships that provide community engagement and service-learning opportunities. In an engaged university, it is critical that faculty integrate volunteer management philosophies and strategies into their pedagogy.”
Schaumleffel was recently recognized by the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America with the Whitney M. Young Jr. Service Award for a long-standing university-nonprofit partnership he facilitated to engage student volunteers to extend scouting opportunities for youth and individuals with disabilities in rural, low-income and inner-city neighborhoods across the Wabash Valley.
Earning the CVA designation is rare for faculty in university settings, he said, as they’re usually found at hospitals, museums, faith-based institutions, human services agencies and private sector employee engagement programs. But Schaumleffel said he would like to change reality and has recently written a book about how nonprofits can get the most out of a relationship with a university — just like at Indiana State.