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Fund Drive Kicks Into High Gear


April 18, 2019

Fr. Paul Zahler spends some time working with Evan James in the stimulation room.

A fund drive will get in high gear on Good Friday to finance a needed child development center for Father Paul Zahler's Home Integration Inc. program for children with mental delays, cabins for Camp Sooner, a monthly camp for adult caregivers and adults with disabilities, plus a pool house and "we gotta have a swimming pool," the priest-founder-director said Monday.

These facilities would be built on the 36 acres west of the former St. Gregory's University campus, that St. Gregory's Abbey gave to Fr. Zahler's more than 50-year-old program after bankruptcy administrators ordered it out of its longtime campus buildings.

The land gift connects to the existing horse barn that houses an important part of the program's therapeutic work. "That way we don't have to build a new horse barn," Fr. Zahler said. "All of this would be brand new.

"Donations of all sizes are welcomed from all interested persons," he continued. They can be sent to Fr. Paul Zahler, c/o St. Gregory's Abbey, 1900 West MacArthur, Shawnee, Oklahoma, 74804.

Former Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, a former Shawnee resident who has a deep personal interest in Fr. Zahler's work, is heading the fundraising campaign.

Henry and his wife, Kim Henry, now of Edmond, had an infant daughter, Lindsey, who had suffered from a neuro-muscular disorder from birth. At three months of age, she was brought into Fr. Zahler's program. "We had activities there that were very sensorial. They helped her; made her feel good," Fr. Zahler said.

She passed away at seven months, but a twin sister survived. The family also includes other daughters now.

"My principle is, the earlier (treatment starts), the better, but it's never too late."

Home Integration Inc.'s goal of helping children with "mental delays" includes such challenges as autism, cerebral palsy and similar issues.

"Our mission is to reach children and their families," Fr. Zahler said. "Our services are local, but we try to help others in different areas, some other states, too. We have people from other states that come to our camps and other kinds of things."

It started with a volunteer swimming program in 1966. "By 1972, we had some grandparents who were bringing me babies for the swim program. Babies grew up, so then we started the child development center."

In 1990, he and staff formed the home integrated, supported living agency. "That's where they are in their own homes and have their own bedrooms. Some of the adults live with the children. We call that In-Home Support."

He estimated his Child Development Center has helped children in families from Boston to Florida, many from Minnesota and elsewhere; and that his camping and supported living programs have aided 30,000 kids and adults in the last four decades.

Their in-home support program serves about six homes at present, scattered "all across Shawnee, and we're the agency that takes care of them," he said.

Some 23 persons are living with roommates in supported living facilities in Shawnee, supervised by a 24-hour support staff.

"We were very involved in de-institutionalizing," Fr. Zahler said, "like at the Hissom Center outside Sand Springs, the Southern Oklahoma Resource Center in Pauls Valley and Northern Oklahoma Resource Center in Enid. There were a lot who were de-institutionalized.

"We also had a camping program; now the adults and children are in their own homes. The families and foster parents need respite care - a break - once a month. We had to find a new location and that is called Camp Sooner, in Pink.

"That's where we do our monthly camp, one weekend a month for 48 hours, for adults serving and adults with disabilities. Boys and girls stay in cabins. We have two or three staff who stay with every eight to 10 individuals. The ages of participants range from eight to 80 years old.

"We have a lot of fun," he added.

"We still have the horse program. It's small now, because some of the children who were in the child development program that was at the Mabee Aerobics Center, now come for riding twice a week. We're running around 10 or 12 right now; it's a little hard for the parents to take off from work to transport them."

Young riders range in age from two to eight years old. The program's six horses are located in the barn on the St. Gregory's Abbey campus. While they do a little outdoor riding, most is in an indoor arena, so they can ride rain or shine.

A horsemanship coordinator trained in Certified Horsemanship Association methods works with the youthful riders full time.

Fr. Zahler is founder and director of the organization. Virginia Reeves is administrative director.

About 70 to 80 staff members keep the programs running. "All are still on board since the bankruptcy," Reeves said.

Funding is through the organization's contract with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, she said.

Fr. Zahler started with an associate in arts and sciences degree from St. Gregory's College and in time, earned master's and PhD. degrees from the University of Oklahoma in health, physical education and recreation, and in special education.

"That's how I was able to put the program together," he said.

The fundraising program officially started in January 2019. So far, the 36 acres have been given, as well as $60,000 for an endowment; an architectural plan; and an Oklahoma City public relations firm is making a $25,000 donation of promotional materials that are expected to be completed by tomorrow, Good Friday.

A foundation is now being developed to ask for financial donations of any size, large or small.


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