WOODCOCK TOWNSHIP — As a bulldozer ready to plow into Bethesda Lutheran Services' future idled behind a nearby tree, Alice Dalmaso paused a moment to consider the past.
To a crowd of about 20 Bethesda officials, supporters and representatives of local politicians, Dalmaso explained that it was William S. Wise who made today’s Bethesda possible.
Reading from an obituary of Wise printed on the front page of the Meadville Tribune-Republican when he died at age 90 in 1952, Dalmaso chronicled his accomplishments, including his central role in the establishment of the Crawford County Agricultural Extension Service, the Dairymen’s Cooperative Sales Association and the Meadville Cooperative Association, working as a director for the Crawford County Trust Company for nearly 30 years, even serving on the regional draft board of appeals in his 80s during World War II.
But perhaps none of Wise’s accomplishments have exerted as significant an influence on individual lives in northwestern Pennsylvania as his donation of 363 acres — the 300-acre dairy farm he had taken over from his father and two adjoining parcels he purchased — in 1919 for the creation of the Orphans’ Home of the Pittsburgh Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, forerunner of today’s Bethesda Lutheran Services.
“That’s our man,” Dalmaso declared as she reached the conclusion.
In recognition of “our man,” Bethesda is naming a new 20-bed residence hall after Wise. Following Dalmaso’s address Wednesday, CEO George Trauner and a half-dozen other Bethesda officials and supporters picked up ceremonial golden shovels and posed for photos in front of ground that had already been broken — that resting bulldozer had been busy mere moments before the ceremony took place at the Route 86 facility.
Wise Hall, Trauner told the crowd, will replace two nearby buildings that were trucked onto the campus in the mid-1970s. Plans at the time called for the modular units to be used for only a few years. More than 40 years later, the 15,980-square-foot Wise Hall will finally replace them, with one slated for demolition and the other for possible conversion to office space. Construction is expected to take about one year, according to Dan Burek, a board member of Bethesda’s Foundation for Children.
Start-up costs for the $3 million project were funded in part by a $100,000 Neighborhood Assistance Program grant through UPMC obtained with the help of state Sen. Michele Brooks’ office, Trauner said.
Reflecting on Bethesda’s century-plus history in Crawford County, Trauner said, “This building’s going to add something special to not only this property but to the community.”
Wise Hall will consist of two mirror-image wings around a common area in the middle, with one side housing up to 10 youths in a psychiatric residential treatment program and the other side offering specialized residential treatment for court-ordered cases.
The groundbreaking comes only weeks after the opening of Bethesda’s Peterson Home, a first-of-its-kind foster home for up to six children that is staffed by a married couple that the agency hired to live there.
The construction is part of a larger trend over the past few years and is evident nearly everywhere one looks on the Meadville campus — from the new maintenance building just past where the bulldozer waited to get back to work on Wise Hall preparations, to the 17,000-square-foot education center a few buildings away that was renovated and expanded in 2016, to the signage that displays the new logo and name adopted in 2017 to replace Bethesda Children’s Home.
At the same time, Bethesda has gone from serving about 600 children to more than 1,000, Trauner said, and the agency’s budget has increased from $8 million to $15.5 million each year.
“It’s a start,” Trauner said of Wise Hall. “We’re starting to replace aging buildings and to be able to meet the needs of the youth that come here for programming.”
For over 100 years, Bethesda has worked to provide promising futures for children, youth and families through individualized mental and behavioral health services provided in a residential, school or community setting, its website notes.
Only about 60 of the 1,000 youths served by Bethesda live on campus, Trauner said, and more than ever the focus of the agency’s efforts is keeping children with their families. In fact, Wise Hall will accommodate 10 fewer youths than the two buildings it replaces, but that fits with an increased emphasis on community-based care rather than congregate care, with children housed in a single central location like the Bethesda campus.
The increase in children served, he added, does not indicate that more and more children are encountering struggles.
“We’re doing a better job of responding” to existing challenges, Trauner explained. “One thing this agency has thrived on and is very proud of is reducing more of our youth that are placed with us and increasing services with youth in the community. The key thing is keeping them in their homes.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.