Here We Grow Learning Center

St. John of God: 50 years of serving people with disabilities

by TOM WILK

From newborns to senior citizens, St. John of God of Community Services in Deptford, N.J., has been serving people with developmental disabilities for nearly half a century.

“We are a nonprofit and nonsectarian agency,” said Muncie Buckalew, executive director of agency, which was founded by the Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God.
“Our mission is to assist people to develop their skills to the fullest potential with caring and compassion and to honor the dignity of each individual we encounter,” she explained.

Like a seed taking root, the program had a modest beginning but quickly grew.

“Our first school opened in January 1966 (in Haddonfield, N.J.) with seven students and five Hospitaller Brothers,” said Joan Botto, human resources manager.

  • Student garden at St. John of God in New Jersey
  • Reading time at St. John of God in New Jersey
  • Chris at work at St. John of God
  • Chris Drulis is one of more than 1,000 people with developmental disabilities who receive services at St. John of God
  • Jeannette performing in St. John of God talent show

Word of the school spread and the educational program relocated a few miles away to Deptford in 1968.

“The Brothers were joined by parents by volunteers and parents as the waiting list for services grew to 400 by 1970,” she noted.

Today, more than 1,000 people are served at the 29-acre campus in Deptford and a second facility in Pittsgrove. The Grammy-winning band Los Lobos paid tribute to the school in 1990 with its song “Little John of God” on “The Neighborhood” album.

St. John of God caters its services according to the needs of individuals. Staffers in the Early Intervention program provide home-based therapeutic care and educational services for families of children under 3 with identified developmental delays.

The Here We Grow Learning Center serves children with and without disabilities up to age 5, while the Archbishop Damiano School provides educational and transition options for students ages 3 to 21 with moderate to severe disabilities and/or special medical needs. Speech, physical and occupational therapies are provided.

Vocational rehabilitation provides job training opportunities for such tasks as light assembly and product labeling. Workers receive financial compensation for their labor.

Supported employment helps to find jobs in the community for people with disabilities and provides assistance in the search for work.
Augmenting the staff of 250 employees at St. John of God are volunteers of all ages.

“Volunteers hold a special place in our history,” Botto said. “Approximately 200 volunteers contribute to our New Jersey programs each year by offering their time and talents in various aspects of our services.”

They range from youth volunteers who provide peer relationships with students to retirees who assist at all program levels, according to Botto.

Scott Salmonsen, whose daughter Kelley was born with Down syndrome in December 1972, credits St. John of God with aiding her development from infancy to adulthood.

After learning of his daughter’s condition shortly after her birth, Salmonsen and his wife rejected a recommendation to place Kelley in an institution. Instead, she entered the Early Intervention program in January 1973 and continued with the other programs until age 21. Kelley found a part-time job at a local nursing home in 1994, where she was worked ever since.

“St. John of God was a key part of her life,” said Salmonsen, a retired educator who  now works as a secondary school supervisor in Deptford. “She probably would not be where she is today without St. John of God.”

Tom Wilk is a freelance writer in New Jersey.

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