CHDC serves hundreds living with disabilities

Dwain Hebda

Dwain Hebda is a writer, editor and journalist living in Little Rock. The president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, he’s covered a wide range of subject matter over the course of his 40 years of professional writing that includes magazines, newspapers and books. When he’s not bringing the tales of Arkansas and her people to the page, Hebda and his wife spend their energy on their four grown children and three lovely dogs.
Dwain Hebda

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Sarah Murphy serves as the superintendent of the Conway Human Development Center, where services are provided to about 480 residents. (Mike Kemp photo)

Kirk Rainwater is special in all the best definitions of the word. Despite dealing with the challenges of severe autism spectrum disorder, Rainwater has made major strides in developmental and social interaction. He’s also completed special education and is now enrolled in adult education program classes. 

His mother Deborah knows where the overwhelming majority of credit belongs for her son’s accomplishments: the Conway Human Development Center, where Kirk has lived full time for the past nine years. 

“It has been very good. Kirk has made so much improvement since he’s been here,” she said. “He participates in things that we never thought would be possible.”

Like a lot of families of people with special needs, the Rainwaters were overwhelmed by Kirk’s needs for the first nine years of his life. 

“At home he was not potty-trained and he self-injured,” Deborah said. “We could not keep him dressed and his attention span was maybe 10 seconds at the most.

“We were looking for help and we were told the only place that the state has for school-aged children is here at the Conway Human Development Center where they provide residential 24-hour nursing care.”

Kirk is one of roughly 480 residents who live at CHDC. The vast majority are adults, but the 50 or so children whom the center currently serves sets the CHDC apart in the spectrum of such facilities.

“Serving children makes us very unique,” said Sarah Murphy, CHDC superintendent. “We do have children’s homes which are separate than those for the adults. And we have a school here on grounds with certified special education teachers to provide their education as well.”

Like all the patients here, youngsters are served according to their individual level of need. Murphy said while it’s not an automatic outcome, it is not uncommon to find adult residents here who initially arrived as children or youth.

“The goal is for residents to be served in the least restrictive setting that they can function in safely,” she said. “We have residents who are kiddos that just need medication management, or maybe they just need some form of support or stabilizations and then maybe they’re able to go back home.

“Others maybe come in at 16 and when they hit adulthood, they can transition to an adult home. That definitely does happen. And then we also have those folks that come in as adolescents and they still need this level of care where they need 24 hour supervision on site. They would transition to an adult home.”

CHDC was founded in 1959 and directly employs about 1,000 people, many of them physicians, nurses and other allied health care workers who serve the needs of the residents daily.

“We are very blessed to have five physicians here on site and they each have a primary care caseload of about 100 residents that are their patients,” Murphy said. “We also have around 87 or 88 nurses that work here; about 24 of them are RNs and the remainder are LPNs. They give the meds and they do the seizure care and those sorts of things.

“We have very good medical support here. We have a respiratory therapist on staff, we have a psychiatrist on contract that comes here two days a week and sees residents. We have physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy here on site. We have an audiologist that is onsite. We have our own dentist that works for us full time.”

Residents are spread out over 32 homelike living units, assigned by gender and level of functioning. There’s also a workshop where residents help directly serve a need of the community in a unique way.

“We make our own wheelchairs, we build them,” Murphy said. “Many of our residents have deformities or anomalies where they can’t sit straight up and down in a chair and if they don’t get support in specific areas, they can get pressure sores or just not have comfort. In our state-of-the-art workshop, we pour this foaming material into a form and it forms up around the person and it creates seating that meets all of those pressure areas.

“Because of that, we have little to no issues with pressure or pressure sores because the chair is made for the individual. It’s one of those things where it’s so simple, yet nobody else is doing it.”

Murphy said even though CHDC has entered its sixth decade, and on the same ground to boot, there are lots of misconceptions about all that the center offers residents, as well as sketchy understanding of the physically and developmentally challenged in general.

“A lot of the times, people don’t realize what a big part of the community we are,” she said. “Sometimes they think of us like we’re separate because we are so self-sufficient with these wonderful amenities on our grounds. But we get off-grounds; our residents are beside you in the movies, they are at Kroger with you. They have disabilities, but they are just like anybody else.

“A lot of the times I think we’re kind of like a treasure that is hidden right in the middle of Conway. We’re right here, but people just kind of look past us.”

Not so with the Rainwaters, who say the services Kirk has received not only positively impacted him directly, but have indirectly served the entire family.

“Kirk is our youngest of four,” said Deborah, who is president of the CHDC parents’ group. “For us to be able to place Kirk at Conway Human Development Center has made it where my older children were able to go on and do other things, like graduate from college and get married and start having their own children, whereas before, they were part of the team helping try to take care of him.

“When he was living at home, I wasn’t sleeping because he was my job, 24 hours a day. There’s a peaceful feeling now, I can have a life outside of taking care of Kirk. These people that work at CHDC, they love him, they’re caring for him and they’re not going to let anything happen to him. They’ve changed our life.”