1960s: Where It All Began
Echuca during the early 1960s was a lonely place for families with children with an intellectual disability. Facing hurdles of acceptance, understanding and support at every turn, these families struggled to raise their loved ones with little to no assistance from societal, healthcare and Government systems geared overwhelmingly towards supporting the needs of the mainstream. Despite this isolation a small collection of Echuca parents identified the similarities in their situations and decided to get together to create an activity group that would provide a fun and stimulating environment for their kids and a much-needed respite network for themselves. This informal alliance continued for four years, up until the point that the need for a more formalised network of support was put to a public meeting called by Echuca City Mayor, Arthur Rosendale on November 14, 1967.
The meeting was chaired by a local medical doctor – a champion for the rights of those with an intellectual disability – Dr James Alexander. Through the course of this medical career, Dr Alexander had been struck by the number of families who were straining to understand and cope with the lack of awareness and provision of services for their children with a disability. At this meeting in 1967, Dr Alexander proposed that a formal service for local people with an intellectual disability be established. His aim was to offer respite to parents but to also provide a caring environment for the kids to enjoy and learn in.
With strong council and community backing, it wasn’t long before a house on the corner of Dickson and Connelly Streets, Echuca, was purhcased from the Tehan family, to provide onsite respite and care of children with an intellectual disability. A condition of the sale (and in recognition of the less than market value sale price) was that the home be named ‘Tehan House’ in honour of the Tehan family. With this, the Echuca and District Centre for Intellectually Handicapped Children was formed.
Following alterations made to comply with the Mental Health Authority regulations, the Centre was officially opened by Sir John McEwen, the leader of the Country Party (now known as the National Party), on June 11, 1968.
Initial enrollments stood at just four children. These four founding children came under the care of a qualified mothercraft nurse, Joy Hooper. Joy had been recruited to the position of supervisor by Dr Alexander after he recognised her skills and personal disposition as being in line with the purpose and aspirations of the Centre.
Over a short time, enrollment numbers steadily increased and additional teachers and staff were employed to provide more sophisticated care. By the end of 1968, there were 17 children enrolled, however many families were not based in Echuca, facing long commutes from home and difficulties in establishing reliable transport services. To overcome these issues the Centre called on volunteer drivers and endeavoured to subsidise taxis where possible. Stepping in to help alleviate the pressure was Tehan House committee member and local business man, Max McKee. Along with Dr Alexander, Max was instrumental in setting up and coordinating a team of volunteer drivers to transport kids and families from the wider region to Tehan House.
As the 1960s came to a close, Tehan House Committee members conducted their first annual general meeting, during which Dr Alexander spoke of his pride and admiration for everyone involved in getting the much needed service up and running. In his first President’s report he made special note of the establishment of a hands-on workshop for activities like woodwork. He also thanked the Committee, the staff and everyone in the district who had come together to bring the dream to fruition.
Dr Alexander was especially grateful for the commitment and hard work shown by his Tehan House Committee secretary, and great mate, Jack Squire, praising his tireless contribution of “thought, time, work and energy” and even going so far as to state that “it is no exaggeration to say that had it not been for him we could not have succeeded.”
Elizabeth Davidson’s Tehan House Ladies’ Auxiliary President’s report noted that the inaugural ball proved to be a successful event: “It is with the whole-hearted and enthusiastic support of 33 members that I present a cheque for $2000.”
With $6000 funding from a successful Government grant for maintenance and transport, Tehan House and the Echuca and District Centre for Intellectually Handicapped Children had begun to make a huge difference to the lives of families with children with intellectual disabilities. As Tehan House entered a new decade it shone the light on an alternative approach, and a brighter future, for these families and their children.
This story is an excerpt from Our Vivid History, a collection of stories celebrating over 50 years of our organisation. If you would like to order a copy of the book, please click below.