Bethesda Lutheran Communities

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Bethesda Lutheran Communities is a non-profit human service organization serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities through faith-based programs. Bethesda, a 501(c)3 non-profit, provides supports and services for more than 2,000 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families in 14 states including California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. The organization is headquartered in Watertown, Wisconsin.


Bethesda was founded on April 13, 1904 in Watertown, Wisconsin by Children’s Friends Societies from seven Midwestern states. The organization was originally named "The Society for the Training and Care of the Feeble-minded and Epileptic". The five people originally supported by the organization moved into rented quarters in Watertown.

In 1906, the organization had grown to serve 14 people, but lost its lease. It relocated to a small vacant sanitarium in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for 2½ years and grew to serve a clientele of 40 people. Having outgrown its Milwaukee location, the organization returned to Watertown in 1909, where the first permanent building was located on farmland along the banks of the Rock River. Above the main entrance to that building was placed a stone inscribed with a single word, “Bethesda”. The word is Hebrew for “House of Mercy” and is taken from a story of healing in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of John. The name of the organization was not officially changed to Bethesda Lutheran Home until 1923.

The original building quickly filled and others were built to accommodate a growing need for space. Through the first 40 years of its existence, Bethesda made use of the surrounding farmland and orchards to provide much of its own food. Many of the residents provided the necessary labor.


By the early 1970s the number of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities living at the institution had grown to 660. In response to this large number of people, along with the growing level of individual needs, the board of directors and administration began to seek more appropriate living settings for many people. For others, they began to explore the possibility of establishing group homes away from Watertown and closer to people’s families. In 1977 the first Bethesda group home was established in Maryville, Missouri. The establishment of additional homes in other states followed.

1980 - 2000[edit]

The 1980s and 1990s were marked by significant expansion of services in a number of states. In two locations, Kansas and Texas, Bethesda acquired existing programs that were facing financial difficulties. Both programs are functioning and still expanding today. In Illinois, a number of new homes were constructed.

In the early 1980s Bethesda established the National Christian Resource Center (NCRC). The NCRC provides outreach services beyond the individuals it supports. For 25 years, the NCRC produced religious education materials for churches; staff training materials for other service providers; referral information to parents, teachers and pastors; and scholarship and award programs for grade school, high school and college students. In 2009, the NCRC gave way to the Bethesda Institute, which has become the primary outreach division of Bethesda Lutheran Communities. The Institute is planned to provide consultation, research, professional training and leadership development in the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities.

In recognition of its broadened role in producing outreach materials and services beyond its single location in Watertown, Bethesda's Board of Directors made the decision in 1992 to change the name of the organization to Bethesda Lutheran Homes and Services, Inc.

Good Shepherd Communities[edit]

In 2006, Bethesda became a nationwide organization when Good Shepherd Communities (GSC) became a wholly controlled subsidiary of the organization. The histories of the two agencies had been intertwined since GSC’s inception. In 1949, Norma and Paul Yorde traveled from California to Watertown, Wisconsin to inquire about placing their son on a waiting list for admission to Bethesda. Bethesda was unable to admit their son but offered the Yordes assistance in developing a program for people with disabilities on the west coast.

Founded as Good Shepherd Lutheran Home of the West in Terra Bella, California, Bethesda provided assistance to help the organization get started and, in the 1970s, the two agencies even partnered on a successful joint fundraising initiative.

In November 2008, Bethesda’s Board of Directors made the recommendation to affect the formal merger with Good Shepherd Communities, effective September 1, 2009. That recommendation was preceded by a year-long study of Bethesda’s mission, vision and values with relation to the strength of its identity.

A formal merger of Bethesda and GSC was approved in May 2009. As of September 1, 2009, the single organization became known as Bethesda Lutheran Communities.


Through its Bethesda Voices program, an online community, Bethesda seeks to improve public policy affecting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Its purpose is to educate, engage and mobilize support for system reforms and improvements, and to seek improved and sustainable funding for services and supports. One focus is Medicaid reform. Specifically, helping to make funding more accessible to people seeking services in the community as opposed to larger, institutional settings.


As of 2015, Bethesda supports individuals in over 300 locations across 14 states including Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, Texas, California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. Most people served by Bethesda receive residential supports in group homes and apartments. Bethesda also provides vocational training either on its own or by contracting with other local providers.

International work[edit]

On August 10, 2001, Bethesda joined with v. Bodelschwinghsche Anstalten Bethel of Germany, Nord-Norges Daikonistiftelse of Norway, Mosaic[1] of the United States and Bethphage of Great Britain to create IMPACT,[2] an international organization formed to positively impact public policy throughout the world and to respond to the needs of children and adults with disabilities.

International partnerships also exist with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod World Relief and Human Care to provide special programs in Latvia, Romania, Russia, Kenya, and the Dominican Republic.

Outreach services[edit]

Through its primary outreach portal, the Bethesda Institute, the organization produces and distributes curricula and other resources supporting the spiritual lives of people with disabilities. Since 1986, the Bethesda has also produced staff training materials for distribution to other professional support providing agencies.

Camp Matz[edit]

In a wooded area of its Watertown campus, Bethesda operates Camp Matz, a fully accessible camp for people with disabilities. The camp offers 12, week-long sessions staffed by volunteers who are part of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s Servant Event program.[3] The camp includes paved hiking trails, cabins, and an outdoor chapel area.

Since 2004, the Camp has been home to the only fully wheelchair accessible treehouse in the Midwest.

Chief executive officers[edit]

  • 1975-1998: Alex Napolitano
  • 1998-2008: David Geske
  • 2008-2014: John Bauer
  • 2014–present: Mike Thirtle

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-10-03. Retrieved 2009-10-01. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Herzog, Albert. Disability Advocacy Among Religious Organizations: Histories and Reflections. Binghamton, New York: Haworth Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-7890-3289-8

External links[edit]