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Creating a better life for the disabled was a religion for Frank Olean

Woman shopping in grocery store, placing an item in her cart with her DSP nearby.

Frank Olean, at the urging of his wife, Rita, played a key role in advancing services for the developmentally disabled in Rhode Island.

Transforming care for the disabled was his mission and it became his religion and legacy. That’s how Frank Olean’s children summed up their father’s life and the start of the Frank Olean Center during a free-flowing discussion recently.

Bruce, Elizabeth, and Ann came to the Center in September to piece together all the elements that created what has become a dedicated community of workers, participants, their families, and donors focused on improving the lives of those with developmental disabilities.

While Rita Olean might have provided the initial push, Frank Olean was perfectly suited to take the lead of a blossoming effort to create an alternative to institutional care for people like their son, Jay.

Jay was 1 when his siblings learned that they were fortunate enough to have a special brother with them, according to Beth.

“We were called into the living room and our father said that of all the children in the world God created Jay, a special child who needed a special family and he selected ours,” Beth recalled. “I remember feeling ‘aren’t we lucky;’ it wasn’t a burden.

“Jay was our brother and he was included in everything,” Beth continued. “Inclusion was very much a part of our family and Jay was always in the community with us. I don’t remember any questions from friends.”

Ann related a story that captures perfectly the environment of inclusion created by the Oleans.

“My husband asked me, after the first time he met the family, ‘why didn’t you tell me he was disabled,’ and I said ‘he’s just our brother.’ ”

To be sure, the Oleans were well ahead of their time.

“At home one night, my mother told my father she had heard of a meeting for parents to talk about kids with MR and she said, ‘I think you should go to that meeting,’ and before that, she had never told my father what he should do,” Bruce said with a laugh.

At that meeting of 22 families in 1962 at the Langworthy Library in Hopkinton Frank Olean agreed to serve as Vice President of the group. Frank and Milt Ferris would alternate as President and Vice President for many years.

Getting this history organized has been important to the Olean family and Executive Director Ruth Tureckova. Clearly, the timing was right for this project, since Tureckova was approached recently by Gerry and Laura Tobin offering to help with the effort.

The Tobins are collating all the significant dates and events that various current and former staff have provided, along with the narrative from September’s interview with the family, to create the comprehensive history of the organization.

And we urge you to contribute your stories of the important work the Olean Center has done for you and your loved ones.

Stay tuned for the results of this exciting project.

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