Real work for Utahns with disabilities: a peek at the beginnings of the history of the Columbus Community Center

SALT LAKE CITY - Every day in Utah, hundreds of adults with mental disabilities have a place to work and earn paychecks at the Columbus Community Center and this month, the Center celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Terrell Dougan was there at the start, when her father Richmond 'Dick' Harris had the first idea that led to the Columbus Community Center.

Harris sent letters to local papers when he learned his daughter, Irene, had mental disabilities.

According to Dougan, her father asked, "Are there any other people in this valley who have this condition in their family?"

The response led to the formation of Northern Utah's first association for families of children with disabilities.

That was in 1952. Sixteen years later, when Irene was an adult, Dr. Geraldine Clark had the idea for the Columbus Community Center as a place where mentally disabled adults could go to develop skills and be productive citizens. Clark's idea and expertise became a reality because of all the volunteers first organized by Harris. They lobbied the legislature, found private support and located a building.

Dougan said it started small.

"You have to picture a little elementary school and the little classrooms with the little chairs and things."

But the building itself represented a major step in Utah's recognition of often overlooked residents.

Even though the building wasn't much, the center found business partners who provided real work for the participants, including Irene.

"The dignity and the thrill of getting a paycheck that you earned is huge for all of us," Dougan said, describing the day her sister used her own money to pay for an outing together.

Fox 13 is a proud sponsor of the Columbus Community Centers "Dignity Through the Decades Gala" celebrating their 50 years. Fox 13's Bob Evans will Emcee the Gala on October 26th, and we'll be doing weekly stories until then showing some of the exciting activities at the Center and ambitious plans for the future.