Oaklawn leaders break ground at our original site 2600 Oakland Avenue, Elkhart.
A vision for a better way
Though Oaklawn wouldn’t officially open its doors until 1963, its story begins during World War II. Conscientious objectors from the traditional peace churches – Mennonite, Brethren, Quaker and others – were posted at Civilian Public Service (CPS) projects around the country. About 3,000 were sent to work in state mental hospitals. The conditions they witnessed were shocking…
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Patients were beaten, regularly. They rarely, if ever, saw a doctor. They were naked, unclean and hungry. Hospitals were filled with hundreds more patients than they were built to hold. Attendants, not medical professionals, determined whether a patient should be restrained, isolated or medicated. One attendant could be in charge of up to 200 patients.
“So you have young, earnest, untrained people with good hearts — fresh off the farm, in many cases — and they witnessed these horrible conditions,” said Laurie Nafziger, Oaklawn’s President and CEO.
Many began to document what they saw, reporting conditions to state authorities and gathering enough evidence to gain national attention. For the next 30 years, there was a deinstitutionalization movement in America. Mennonites in particular, because of their CPS experience and belief in Christian love, felt called to make a difference in mental health care.
“They became part of a growing conversation that said, ‘There has to be a better way to treat the mentally ill,’ ” Nafziger said.
They decided to open six mental health centers across the U.S. Oaklawn was the last, opened in 1963. While much has changed since then, the principles that Oaklawn was founded on remain the same.
“We believe that people deserve to be treated with compassion and respect and dignity,” Nafziger said. “Every person has worth. That will never change.”