Sarijane Freiman

Lisa Mandel
Sarijane Freiman (seated), with her daughter, Rebecca Helfer. Photo: Lisa Mandel

Susan Fadem

Sarijane Freiman never set out to be a social activist. In fact, she grew up at a time when “young ladies were supposed to marry well, make children, join Hadassah and work for (the temple) Sisterhood.” Freiman did all those things. But it was as a mother, determined to help her youngest child, that she became a trailblazer.

Rebecca Freiman, born in 1966, had her first epileptic seizure in first grade. A developmental disability, epilepsy is a chronic neurological disorder,

“You didn’t even say the word ‘epilepsy’ out loud in those days,” Freiman recalls. Yet not until she telephoned the Epilepsy Federation did Freiman realize “I had never been so alone in my life.” Dead silence met her inquiries about a parent support group, a speakers bureau and “anything that could help me normalize my child’s life.”

But those are some good ideas, a local federation representative told her. Would she be interested in working on them? She was. When an area school requested a talk on epilepsy, Freiman was volunteered. Soon, she spoke at a nursing-school conference on epilepsy; also in attendance was someone from the state planning council that oversaw distribution of federal funds for disability. A call from a White House official informed Freiman she had been appointed to the state council.

Running back and forth to Jefferson City, as she puts its, she learned how to help start programs. One was the Special Offenders Council, the nation’s first program to deal specifically with people with developmental disabilities who had gotten in trouble with the law. For a number of years, Freiman was a regular part of the curriculum at the St. Louis Police Academy, teaching about developmental disabilities. When the United States joined other nations in deinstitutionalizing many of those with developmental disabilities, Freiman helped develop programs for reintroducing these individuals – many institutionalized since birth – back into society.

“One of the most exciting things,” she says, “was passage of Senate Bill 40 in St. Louis County” in the late 1970s. The community voted to tax itself, with money earmarked for adults with developmental disabilities. Freiman was one of the first three people who signed to place the issue on the ballot. She was also one of the first people appointed to the resulting Productive Living Board, where she continues to serve nearly 40 years later. Through Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, she helped start programs to train public-school teachers to integrate those with developmental disabilities into classrooms. In addition, she focused on employment, independent living, recreation and socialization.

“Sarijane has been part of creating services that will last for generations,” says Wendy Sullivan, president of Life Skills Foundation here.

Rebecca Helfer, Freiman’s now-married daughter, says: “I always think God makes things happen for a reason. So maybe one of the reasons I have what I have is to make sure my mom did these things. God gives people what they can take. Perhaps this was to test Mom. She should be talked about and praised.”