Dr. Harry Hartzell with Lynda Steele, Abilities United Executive Director
Dr. Harry Hartzell with Lynda Steele, Abilities United Executive Director

Fifty years ago Dr. Harry Hartzell, a pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Clinic, learned that his newborn child had severe disabilities. Subsequently, he and his wife discovered that a group of parents had started a program at a local church for young children with developmental disabilities. They enrolled their son Ben and found the program, under the direction of Marie Mong, to be very helpful in giving them guidance in caring for Ben. It also put them in contact with helpful community resources and with other parents facing similar questions and challenges. Thanks to the foresight, planning, and fund raising begun by these parents, who wanted services for their children to be available in the community, this program grew into Abilities United.

It is sobering to remember the thinking that was prevalent in that era. “At that time, the advice that many professionals gave parents was to institutionalize the child before getting emotionally attached,” remembers Dr. Hartzell. “I visited the hospital in Sonoma where Ben would have been placed. It was a shocking experience, and we certainly weren’t going to send our son there. Fortunately, it was the early ’60s, and under the leadership of President Kennedy, parents were having the courage to speak up, taking the position that these are our children, and the right thing to do was to show that we love them by helping them become part of our community.”

Thus began Dr. Hartzell’s association with the agency. In time he would become increasingly active, serving on the Abilities United Board of Directors after retirement from his pediatrics practice, and he continues to advise on fund-raising efforts to this day.

“I’m proud of so many of our programs,” Dr. Hartzell says. “Our Employment Services Program helps our clients get jobs—in food service at Stanford, as a greeter at Walmart – all kinds of things. Our participants take enormous pride in their work, and that furthers the goal of inclusion in the community. I’m also very proud of our programs for the parents. As my wife and I learned, raising a special needs child brings some enormous challenges, so providing counseling and enabling parents to meet with others who have been in their shoes is a huge help.”

A conversation with the remarkable Dr. Hartzell reminds us of the incredible changes over the past 50 years. What is now Abilities United has grown from a small but determined group of parents meeting in a church social hall, to a vibrant organization with a wide range of services and a track record of making a significant difference in the lives of special children and their families. What was once the standard practice of institutionalizing a child has given way to effective efforts at education and inclusion. Here in the Bay Area, Abilities United is playing a key role in those efforts, helping our community continually improve its commitment to our developmentally disabled citizens.

Based on a 2012 interview with Dr. Harry Hartzell.  Written by Bob Thomas. Edited by Harry Hartzell and Wendy Kuehnl.