Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.
One of my favorite childhood Christmas memories was getting to see the Christmas decorations at the Arkansas Children’s Colony. We would drive by on I-40 to see the display that usually included a Merry Christmas sign, a tree and a small passenger train. All were festively decorated with lights and garland. This was often one of the first Christmas displays of the year so it signaled the beginning of the Christmas season.
As a child, I didn’t know very much about the Colony except that it was a place for children who had special needs. I did not know until much later how important this facility was for Arkansas children and what a significant step it was for Arkansas when this facility was opened in October, 1959.
Until the Colony was opened, there weren’t many options for children born with developmental disabilities. Many stayed at home but those who had to be institutionalized were placed in the State Hospital or one of the four reform schools. These facilities were mostly custodial and didn’t provide much education.
Advocates for children with developmental disabilities worked extremely hard to educate governmental officials about the needs of these children. Governor Faubus became one of the biggest supporters of a facility that would educate the children not just take care of them. As a result, Arkansas became the second state to provide a Children’s Colony. It became a model for other states.
Conway was chosen as the location of the Colony in 1957 because of its central location in the state and because of its proximity to UAMS and various state agencies that would work with the children. The Colony was situated on a 409-acre site that the City of Conway purchased from Herman and Joan Siebenmorgan, W.C. Hart and C.P. Moix.
The Arkansas legislature appropriated $1.6 million over the next two years for building and operating expenses.
The design of the new institution would be eight small one-story dormitories would be arranged like a small village. Each cottage would have two bedrooms and a total of thirty-two beds.
At first, there would be space for 256 children but the facility would expand quickly because of the long waiting list.
The educational program that developed ranged from a preschool experience to academic instruction, vocational training and social development.
The goal was for each child to become an active, participating member of society.
It was emphasized that the Colony would be an educational institution, not a custodial one.
The facility would also provide practical experiences for local college students who were training to work with developmentally disabled children.
The children would be able to participate in scouting, intramural softball, bicycling, fishing, bus rides, religious activities and games.
The train that was part of the Christmas display was functional and the children took rides around the campus.
Teachers emphasized learning by doing, allowing each child to proceed at his own rate until he has reached his fullest development.
The establishment of the Colony would also set the stage for the development of special education. The first director of the Colony, David Ray, became a strong advocate for special education.
He argued that most developmentally disabled children did not need to be institutionalized but needed to be provided with educational services in the public schools.
Eunice Shriver, President John F. Kennedy’s sister, agreed with him.
Their oldest sister, Rosemary, was born with developmental disabilities. She came to Conway for a tour of the Colony in May, 1963 and later recruited David Ray to help draft the special education legislation that her brother signed into law in 1963.
The Arkansas Children’s Colony is now known as the Conway Human Development Center.
There are four other similar facilities located at Arkadelphia, Booneville, Jonesboro and Warren. Over 600 clients receive services at the Conway facility.