How a young mom championed the creation of Jordan Valley School nearly 60 years agoJan 25, 2022 01:57PM ● By Sarah Morton Taggart
Ida Romero is shown in 1956 with her three oldest children. (Photo courtesy Rachel Romero Jenson)
By Sarah Morton Taggart | [email protected]
Jordan Valley School, a place of learning and belonging for students with severe disabilities, began as a result of the tireless work of Ida Romero 57 years ago. Yet she has never stepped inside.
In 1956, Romero gave birth to her third child, a girl named Jolene.
“When she was born, she was not developing like the other kids,” Romero said. “I took her to the doctor and I asked what’s wrong with her. He said, well, don’t you know?”
It was her third visit with the pediatrician, and Romero was finally informed that her daughter was born with Down syndrome. The genetic disorder causes developmental and intellectual delays that usually range from mild to moderate. In Jolene’s case, the delays would be severe.
“He said it means she will always be a burden,” Romero recalled. “She may never walk, never talk. He said if I was you, I’d take her to an institution. I couldn’t do that. We brought her home and thought we’ll do the best we can with her.”
Romero and her family loved Jolene very much, but caring for her was hard work. She was not able to do anything for herself until she was five and Romero’s husband, Nelson, had a foot injury. He used his three weeks of convalescence to teach her to feed herself. Toilet training took seven years of repetition and patience.
The Romeros were lucky to have extended family nearby to help out. But when Romero had a fourth child the whole family felt the strain of caring for Jolene.
Then Romero met Carmen Paulsen, who inspired her to do something she’d never imagined was possible.
Romero and Paulsen met while volunteering at the Catholic school in Salt Lake City that their oldest children attended. “She said, I also have a son with mental disabilities, so I helped start a school in Salt Lake and that’s where he goes,” Romero said. “She said, why don’t you start your own?”
Paulsen recommended meeting with the mayor as a first step. Luckily for Romero, Henry Beckstead, the mayor of Midvale at the time, lived around the corner from her. He agreed that there was a need for special education in the area and offered to help.
Beckstead introduced Romero to Bernarr S. Furse, the Jordan School District Superintendent, and Dr. Orr Hill, who also worked for the school district.
The next step was to meet with other parents of children with special needs. Romero obtained a list of 20 families from Margaret Lindsay, the school nurse at Midvale Elementary.
“At that time, people hid these children. They didn’t bring them out in public,” Romero said. “I would knock on the door. They would say we don’t have any of those children here, and they would close the door. As we went along, some did get involved. Some didn’t.”
The first meeting with parents was held in April 1965. Beckstead helped the group form a board of trustees in August with Furse serving as chairman. Romero was named secretary-treasurer and Lindsay and Paulsen also became members of the board.
By October, the team had a meeting with Calvin Rampton, the governor of Utah.
“Our meeting with the governor went very well,” Romero said. “He was very supportive and, like us, believed these children needed a place to be educated and cared for. But more importantly, he agreed to provide financial support from the state. I felt things were finally beginning to take shape and we were making progress.”
A bit of luck was finding a space for the school. The school district owned a vacant building at 7652 Holden St. that could be used for the newly-named Jordan Valley Day Care and Training Center. Public funds and donations from civic clubs would be used for operating costs, and families would pay a modest tuition.
Romero rallied the community to raise money for furniture and equipment and to update the building. They held yard sales and sold tickets for a dance. Romero’s brother volunteered his band to play the music and local businesses donated items for the raffle. They made $500 from the dance, which would be more than $4,000 in today’s dollars.
“It came the time that the school was going to start,” Romero said. “They were trying to find special ed teachers and help. Then I backed off because I knew nothing about hiring teachers.”
Enrollment began in February 1966, less than a year after Romero first talked to her friend about the idea. Then Romero received bad news.
“They said they couldn’t work with Jolene,” Romero said. “She fell into a category of severe mental development and would never attend the school that we helped bring to our community. I was heartbroken.”
After all that work, Romero was seemingly back at square one, and expecting a fifth child. But now she had the support of influential friends. Romero had previously applied for her daughter to live at the Utah State Training School in American Fork, but they were at capacity with more than 200 families on a wait list.
In 1967, Furse, the superintendent, and Lindsay, the school nurse, worked with Romero’s doctor to write a letter on her daughter’s behalf, and this time she was admitted.
“When we got there I thought, I can’t do this,” Romero said. “It was like a barracks with beds lined up. I told my husband we can’t leave her here. He said let’s try it for a while. We cried all the way home, both of us.”
A few weeks later they returned for a visit and found that their daughter had been badly scratched by another resident. They complained to the manager, but not much could be done.
“I kept watching,” Romero said. “The governor and mayor asked to visit the school. Now the governor was aware. His eyes were opened.”
Within a year, Romero noticed things starting to change. The private institution was taken over by the state. Old buildings were replaced and more staff was brought in.
Fifty-six years later, Jolene still lives there.
“She’s always well taken care of,” Romero said. “She’s clean and has her own room. She still can’t do anything for herself, but it’s a better place. She’s going to be 66 on Jan. 23. They said at the time that the life expectancy for babies like her was 10 years.”
The school inspired by Romero’s daughter also lives on.
In 1975, the renamed Jordan Valley School moved to a new building at 7501 S. 1000 East. That same year, four students traveled to Michigan to compete at the Fourth International Special Olympics.
Today the school draws around 100 students aged 5 to 22 from throughout the district each year. The students receive individualized instruction and services to maximize their independence while contributing to their community.
“I’m really happy that it’s turned out how it is,” Romero said. “Maybe God gave us this kid so I could do something for these children.”