Couple’s role in repairing world is helping disabled

Kelly and Barry Larson work to help people with disabilities.Photo: Bill Motchan

BY BILL MOTCHAN, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Judaism and community service go hand in hand. Many Jews take time to contribute their time and energy to tikkun olam, repairing the world. Efforts range from random acts of kindness and teenagers developing creative mitzvah projects to the Unsung Heroes featured by the Light each spring.

Then there are people like Kelly and Barry Larson, who do their part every day to heal the world. 

The Larsons focus on helping people with disabilities. Barry Larson, 61, is founder and president of Bridges Community Support Services, which provides support to people living with cognitive and physical disabilities. Bridges began in 1984 as a counseling service and in 1988 became the first organization in Missouri to offer individualized, supported living services. It now serves nearly 500 people.

Kelly Larson, 57, is the creative director at Living Arts, a workshop that that offers classes to St. Louisans, including people living with disabilities. It is housed in a rambling building at 2814 Sutton Blvd. in the Maplewood Arts District.

On Tuesdays, Living Arts is a beehive of activity, with staff helping students create art. When Kelly enters, the students cheerfully greet her and show their work. Kelly offers supportive words to her students, and they beam with pride.

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Next door to the Living Arts studio is the Living Room, a coffee shop and café run by the Larsons’ son Nathan and daughter Hannah. The Living Room is an offshoot of Bridges. It hires employees with disabilities who work under the guidance of bakers, cooks and baristas. One of those individuals is Sean Brassil, a gregarious staffer who handles many coffee roasting tasks. Brassil, 45, lives with disabilities but they don’t define him. It’s important for him to have a job and make a contribution.

“I do everything from weighing the beans and grinding them to bagging, labeling, boxing and working in the café,” Brassil said, smiling. “One of the fringe benefits is smelling the roasting beans.”

Brassil previously worked in a workshop for people with disabilities. The coffee roasting position is more challenging, but he appreciates that it keeps him engaged. He also clearly loves working for Barry Larson.

“I’m very grateful,” he said. “I work with a bunch of great employees. Barry is the ultimate boss. He treats all of his employees nicely, and he treats his clients at Bridges the same way.”

Brassil’s job coach, Janelle Frazier, assesses the Larsons’  contribution to people with disabilities simply: “They encourage people to be as independent as possible.”

The Larsons have two other grown children, including daughter Addie, who is education administration assistant at Central Reform Congregation.

When Kelly Larson was 12 years old, she already had a career plan.

“I always wanted to work with people who had disabilities,” she said. “When I was in high school, I would get out of school early to go work at the Special School District, and I majored in special ed in college.”

Barry Larson took a more indirect path to his career, but it was influenced by his younger brother.

“He has severe mental retardation,” he said. “He’s in a group home, and he will always need to live in one. He will always need somebody watching out for him.”

In 1981, Barry had planned to become a marriage and family therapist. He came to St. Louis to earn a graduate degree in social work at Washington University. He chose the school in part because a course catalog listed a gestalt therapy class taught by one of CRC’s founders, Rabbi Ed Harris. Barry found a part-time job working in a group home that offered him rent-free housing. It was also serendipitous, because he met Kelly, who also worked there.

“I ended up being a house parent where Kelly worked, and the kindness and respect she had for people with disabilities was something I had never seen before,” he said.

Barry was a family therapist for seven years. He was eventually offered a contract with the Missouri Department of Mental Health to perform counseling. Kelly was working under contract for the same entity doing community integration, which today is known as independent living skills training.

“I was helping people to live as independently as possible, and I worked as a case manager for the department,” she said. “Then, in 1990, we were asked together to pilot the first supportive living program in the state and we took it on with a vengeance. Now that’s all the state offers, they call it supportive living, so it was successful.But it launched what became Bridges.”

Now, about 30 years later, Bridges is a model for operational excellence in community support services. Every two years, the organization goes through a relicensing process, and the survey team that visited last month told Barry Larson that Bridges is their favorite organization to license because the staff is so kind and happy.

Employee satisfaction at Bridges is directly linked to the Larsons’ personal philosophy.

“Our ideal way of working is getting to know our people and their goals and letting them live their life, not our version of their life. It keeps us learning and humble,” Barry said.

Similarly, Bridges stresses the importance of clients living fulfilling lives. The staff develops customized plans for each client to achieve that goal.

Bridges is unusual in part because it is not a nonprofit organization. That allows Barry Larson to exercise his creative vision. Opening a café might not be the logical choice for some community support services, but it made perfect sense to the Larsons. It began with an experimental program in the Grove neighborhood.

“When our son and daughter became interested in the culinary arts, they tied it into employment for people with disabilities,” Kelly said. “They started with a little culinary arts program at the McCormack Baron buildings in the Grove, and they had a commercial kitchen there, and they did baking. McCormack Baron didn’t charge them to use the facilities. They invited people with disabilities to come use the kitchen and, in return, they baked goods for the senior community residents, and once a month they had a full menu happy hour.”

The Larsons are always looking for new opportunities to help people with disabilities become more independent. It’s a part of their nature, said Kelly C. Tiefenbrun, an assistant director at  Bridges.

“They both are committed to serving the people, the individuals that the agency supports, its employees and the community as a whole,” Tiefenbrun said. “Kelly and Barry have always looked for unmet needs, and that’s how this agency and the associated activities have come about, just from their ability to address unmet needs in the community.”

While Barry oversees the operations of Bridges, Kelly works primarily with the arts. Living Arts offers a studio membership for $25 a month, which entitles the members unlimited access to the facilities and supplies.

“We also have weekend workshops for people who have disabilities and some who don’t,” Kelly said. 

They teach printmaking, fiber art, and painting and drawing. Included under the Living Arts umbrella is the Women’s Arts Collective, which encompasses 20 professional female artists. They meet every Friday and work together based on a yearly theme.

“We also partner, along with Bridges, with the St. Louis Art Museum and the Shakespeare Festival,” Kelly said. “They commissioned us to create massive 10-foot-tall puppets that take between three and seven people to operate. We made all the puppets for the Shakespeare Festival and all of our members with disabilities helped make the puppets. This year, the museum commissioned us to make puppets for their winter festival, and three of them are on permanent display at the art museum in the education wing at the gift shop.”