Like most retirees, James McKune, almost 80, keeps busy with hobbies, including interests in construction and motorized vehicles, and planning his next trip — he loves visiting large cities and meeting new people.
Yet McKune also enjoys a special distinction that no peer can claim, as the resident who has now been living at Hammer Residences, Inc. the longest. Hammer’s mission is “to provide adults and children with developmental disabilities the opportunity to experience life to the fullest,” and it has been serving residents in the lakeshore community for 91 years. Nearly 1,500 individuals with developmental disabilities use their housing and other customized services.
Hammer has been McKune’s home since 1947, and today the other residents and staff of Hammer have become his family.
His special friendship with Hammer employee Sue Walker led to her becoming his legal guardian, and the two recently participated in “Hammer Conversations,” a new initiative capturing snapshots of Hammer residents’ lives in short videos, posted to the organization’s website, YouTube channel and shown at public events. The three individuals chosen represent a broad spectrum of age ranges, capturing the many backgrounds found within the Hammer Family.
“I had tears in my eyes after that one,” McKune said of his experience filming his video with Walker.
“I think sharing Hammer’s story is always a good thing, because it opens up community awareness about people with disabilities or who might need more community support, and I think it’s heartwarming to hear people’s personal stories,” Walker said.
As a young social work major seeking a job in her field, she heard about Hammer through others working with the organization, and began her own career in March of 1977, in one of its group homes, where James was a resident. Today, he lives with five other Hammer residents, and each have their own living room, bedroom and bathroom with a shared kitchen and family room, and round-the-clock staff support.
“When I think about Hammer and what is special, it’s the people. We do a lot of fun things, and great things, it really is about the relationships that have a lot of integrity and quality, really meaningful relationships, employees and people who live here,” Walker said.
Leslie Fish, 35, and her mother, Rosemary, are also featured in the initial “Hammer Conversations” series. Their video chronicled a special bond, beginning with Leslie’s birth in 1979, about 18 months after which her mother noticed she was not reaching milestones at the same pace as other children her age, having suffered brain damage and hearing loss during a bout of meningitis as a baby.
The short video follows the Fish family through present day, where Leslie enjoys her job at United Hardware, lives in a Hammer residence and has been dating her boyfriend, Brett, for 15 years.
“We’ve had an unofficial family motto, practically since you were born, and that motto is ‘close no doors’,” Rosemary says to Leslie during their conversation, “Your dad and I decided very early on that we would expose you to everything we could ... you have always been an inspiration to us, Leslie.”
Ann Martinka, who works with affiliate Hammer Travel, filmed a third “Hammer Conversations” video with her family, which includes a 15-year-old daughter with Downs syndrome, Joy. Though she is still in high school, Joy’s parents are already looking ahead to a future that hopefully will include their daughter living in a Hammer residence close to their Eden Prairie home, enjoying independence and a fulfilling career.
“You have certain dreams that you want them to be married, you want them to find the love of their life, you want them to be happy, and that hasn’t changed at all. What has changed is the fact that its a different process to get there,” Martinka said.
Joy’s video was filmed at her family’s home, and followed them eating dinner together and Ann and her husband discussing their decision to name their baby girl “Joy” and the uncertainty that initially accompanies raising a child with disabilities, concerns that Hammer has helped alleviate.
“Being at Hammer, I’ve seen how they help adults and the respect that is given to these individuals, and that has really eased my mind a lot,” said Martinka.
A simple conversation
“We wanted to give people with disabilities a voice, and so we came up with this concept where we could, in the comfort of an intimate conversation, help them tell their story,” said Tony Baisley, Hammer’s director of communication and an instrumental force behind the production of “Hammer Conversations.” “Some of the people we support are a bit compromised verbally, so it’s hard for them to articulate their story. So we had the people closest to them sit down with them and take a walk back through time, some favorite memories of their lives here at Hammer.”
Hammer is a nonprofit, relying on state and federal funding, which can be precarious. It is the hopes of staff and Hammer supporters that the sharing of videos — on the organization’s website and YouTube channel, and at public events throughout the community, will lead to both a greater understanding of the relationships and understanding that can be forged through simple conversations, and will lead to more partnerships and private giving, so that the organization’s mission-driven work can continue.
“I think what’s important for me in the video conversations. They also tend to be, I haven’t really found the right word and so I’ll use this word, they tend to be more ordinary,” said Hammer CEO John Estrem. “Much of what we do at Hammer is really very, ordinary, it’s not splashy. And people with disabilities have ordinary lives. They have jobs, relationships, struggles and victories, like the rest of us. What we do is we just try to provide the right level of support at the right time, and help them along in that pretty ordinary life.”