Kurt Rutzen is the public policy advocate at Bethesda Lutheran Communities, Watertown, Wis. He writes articles and travels the country, visiting lawmakers at state capitols and attending disability related conferences. At each opportunity he gets, Rutzen makes the case that all of us should do a little more to help people with disabilities.
“People with disabilities are just like everyone else — they have hopes and dreams just like everyone else, but just need a little extra support,” he said. One such dream is living on their own. Rutzen says that can be a little tricky. “People with disabilities deserve a safe place to live, and, sadly, many don’t have this basic necessity. Where are you going to live when you make $600 a month?” The options, Kurt explained, are often in rough, low-rent neighborhoods.
What makes this community different
According to Tom Campbell, Bethesda Cornerstone Village vice president of real estate, around 6.5 million people with developmental or intellectual disabilities live in the U.S. Most live with their parents. The lack of affordable, safe housing is a burden these parents have to carry. “Where will my son or daughter live if something happens to us?” these parents ask themselves.
“Cornerstone Village is a subsidiary of Bethesda Lutheran Communities (BLC). For over 100 years BLC has advocated and supported people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”
“The concept for Bethesda Cornerstone Village came up about two years ago,” Campbell said. “A staff member was a board member for a senior living center and remarked how much the community flourished. The seniors were integrated and thriving. The reason? It was faith-based.”
Could BLC do something to help this population thrive on its own? Could there be something to this idea of an inclusive environment? The first step was to run some focus groups.
BLC talked to both seniors and the parents and guardians of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. After multiple conversations, it became apparent that the two groups wanted the same thing: independence and a safe living space.
At Cornerstone Village, the goal is to make it a flourishing community among independent seniors and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, brought together in a Christian environment.
Lutherans supporting other Lutherans
As the project gained traction, Campbell met with Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF) leaders in St. Louis.
“We’ve had a legacy relationship with [LCEF] through Laborers For Christ who helped with many of our group homes. And Bethesda Lutheran Communities is a Recognized Service Organization with The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). We feel it’s critical and core to our fabric to honor that and work with partners that share the same values as Bethesda and Cornerstone. So when we were looking for the financial resources for this project, LCEF was an obvious choice.”
In fact, as Campbell stated emphatically: “Everything we do here is Christ-centered.” And that’s important.
“I’ve built a lot of buildings in my career,” Campbell added. “They’re four walls. As a real estate developer, you build it, occupy it and move on to the next. That’s not Cornerstone.
“What happens inside these four walls is what makes the difference between a normal apartment complex and a housing community. We are building a connection that impacts individuals’ lives inside these walls and outside in the neighborhood as well.”
This sense of belonging is what excites two Cornerstone Village residents in particular.
A surprising depiction of independence
Lauren Russell and Hannah Dryden are best friends. They met when they both attended a program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities at Bethel University, St. Paul, Minn.
“There was a pretty good connection,” Dryden said about meeting Russell for the first time. She sits with her hands folded and a smile on her face. Russell gleams at her friend. You have a sense they could erupt in laughter at any time. There is some truth to that.
“We work together really well, and we are really fun,” Russell added. “We are always there for each other — that’s what friends are for.”
Both ladies value living on their own but don’t think they could do it without each other. “Being independent is asking for help,” Dryden said.
They both like to giggle and laugh. When one is merely thinking about something funny, the other one can’t help laughing. They are often found together on a couch in the common area, bent over their phones, laughing at YouTube videos.
They are also roommates at Cornerstone Village. For Russell, her favorite part of living at the apartments is meeting new people at the community events. Last Halloween, they watched a movie with residents. They gathered for a socially distanced meal on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Local pastors hold weekly Bible studies as well.
“It’s allowed me to grow as a person and get out of my comfort zone as I get to meet new people and get to know the area,” Russell said.
“People with disabilities should be able to live their life like any other person and be independent,” Russell said. Dryden agrees.
“I really value living here and being independent,” Dryden said. “Really amazing and great people.” Since moving into Cornerstone, Dryden found a job filing and scanning the mail at a local Victoria company. “I work hard and like being productive.”
Why the location is important
Bethesda Cornerstone Village is located in Victoria, Minn., a bedroom community southwest of Minneapolis. It’s nestled among a residential area, close to downtown Victoria.
“I am so proud to have this first of its kind project call our city home,” said Dana Hardy, Victoria’s city manager. “The timing of this project couldn’t have been better.”
Hardy says that Victoria had been looking to open up a senior living center. Still, they wanted to avoid construction outside of the city limits. “The location is key,” Hardy said, “because most senior living communities are at a distance from downtown, residential life.
“Integration in the community and connection to the city was important to us. Our role was to work with Bethesda to find that perfect location within a residential community …. It is close to downtown, a park next door, churches nearby and near our downtown area.”
The first residents
Kurt Rutzen remembers being in some of those early conversations about Cornerstone Village.
“I just thought this is going to be the greatest place for people with disabilities. I was so amazed. It is so safe. We even joked that it would be great if I could live there.”
As someone born with cerebral palsy, Rutzen knows full well the challenges people with disabilities face. “I remember thinking as it got close to being finished, I would love to live there because the place is so beautiful and safe and reliable.”
Fast forward a few months, and in mid-2020, Rutzen was one of the first residents at Cornerstone Village.
“It is the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced. It’s like a community. The beauty around here is amazing, and the people are so kind and caring and supportive. They will help you if you need anything.”
As a financial partner with Bethesda Cornerstone Village, LCEF couldn’t be prouder to help provide the funding to fulfill the dreams of extraordinary, courageous men and women like Kurt Rutzen, Lauren Russell and Hannah Dryden. We are honored to be a part of this great work. Kurt, Lauren and Hannah—you inspire us to work even harder in Christ for His people that they might know Him. Thank you.