Final month noticed the demise of one in every of Rifton’s founding fathers. Jerry Voll grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and studied for the ministry at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. His first project was in Lancaster the place he and his new spouse Nancy moved to start his pastorate. It was whereas residing there that they found the Bruderhof which, on the time, had three communities in the US. Collectively they felt a name to affix this group motion, and uprooted and moved with their two-year-old daughter, in 1971, to the Deer Spring group in rural Norfolk, Connecticut.
Norfolk was – and nonetheless is – a tiny city which peaked within the Nineteen Seventies at simply over 2,000 residents but it surely was residence to a number of small establishments that supplied residential care for youngsters with disabilities. Ann Storck’s Nursery, the Laurel Faculty, and Ann’s Nursery for Infants have been all in Norfolk, and the younger folks of Deer Spring visited them frequently to sing, chaperone youngsters on outings or just play on the premises.
For Jerry, work at Deer Spring was a far cry from a pastorate, however his dedication to this new life-style was full and unreserved. He labored within the Group Playthings manufacturing facility, assembling picket storage lockers, bookshelves, chairs, and different faculty furnishings. That’s the place he discovered himself in 1975, the yr that noticed passage of the landmark laws known as the Schooling for All Handicapped Youngsters Act, the precursor of the People with Disabilities Schooling Act (IDEA).
So it was maybe inevitable that shortly after, therapists and lecturers on the close by residential houses began calling for modified chairs to accommodate the wants of their youngsters. Concurrently, and in response to the brand new laws, Kevin Purcell, an worker of Connecticut’s Division of Developmental Companies, got here to Norfolk’s single elementary faculty to determine a program to just accept newly mainstreamed youngsters with disabilities who have been arriving at their doorways.
Purcell will need to have found early that the manufacturing facility at Deer Spring made faculty furnishings, and he got here knocking. In a partnership that has since outlined Rifton’s method to design, Purcell and Voll have been paired in a joint effort to create higher seating and positioning gear for youngsters with all method of disabilities and deformities. Their first collaborative creation was the “totally adjustable” Rifton E50 Chair. After I final spoke with Jerry, he reminisced about these early prototypes, grinning wryly over the ungainly fabrications of slotted plywood and plastic knobs that characterised these units. “Nancy and I have been youth group leaders by then,” he informed me, “and the younger folks at Deer Spring by no means uninterested in teasing me about these ‘totally adjustable’ chairs.”
However they labored, and Jerry labored on, now aided as properly by the remedy employees of Ann’s Nursery. His subsequent efforts targeted on a shower chair, and standing frames adopted. He began touring additional afield, and shortly discovered that therapists all through the Northeast have been keen to present design enter. Voll was joined in his efforts by others in Group Playthings, not solely on the Deer Spring manufacturing facility however at Woodcrest in Rifton, New York, the place on the time, we specialised in aluminum fabrication, and at New Meadow Run, in Farmington, Pennsylvania, the place they did industrial stitching. So whereas Jerry Voll was under no circumstances the one one designing this new sort of kit, his title all the time comes up first within the collective reminiscence of Rifton when reminiscing about these early, early life.
That’s how Rifton was born. On November 1, 1977, the Group Playthings catalog featured a four-page unfold showcasing the handiwork of Voll and his colleagues. For the subsequent three years the Rifton line was carried by the bigger Group Playthings, however by 1980 the product providing had expanded sufficient to justify its personal catalog.
I visited Jerry and his spouse Nancy in early July to probe his reminiscence of these early Rifton beginnings for an extended article I used to be engaged on on the time. Deer Spring closed in 1997, and Kevin Purcell died in 2018, so some particulars are misplaced to historical past, however Jerry’s recollections remained vivid. Identified in March 2016 with colon most cancers, I discovered him bodily drained however mentally alert and able to reminisce. He was seated in a big recliner in the lounge, his fingers in thick gloves regardless of the summer time warmth, affected by poor circulation ever for the reason that most cancers therapies. He was in a position to affirm lots of the particulars I sought, and most of our dialog coated recollections of the Norfolk neighborhood and the 4 years our paths crossed at Deer Spring whereas I used to be in center and highschool.
Jerry grew most animated when telling in regards to the youngsters for whom he had designed gear, and I used to be reminded of probably the most rewarding aspect of Rifton’s mission. He described the second when he positioned the primary little one in Rifton’s newly designed Adjustable Walker (listed in that first catalog for $69.50). “It was in a faculty gymnasium,” he recounted. “The dad and mom have been there. I believe the lady was round ten years outdated. We positioned her within the walker, her first time upright and in a position to propel herself independently, and she or he took off throughout the gymnasium ground. There was not a dry eye within the room,” he marveled, his personal voice catching, eyes welling on the reminiscence, now forty-five years outdated.
Jerry Voll was eighty years outdated when he handed on November 17. He leaves behind Nancy, his spouse of fifty-five years, two sons and two daughters. He additionally leaves behind an prolonged household in all places he known as residence at one time or one other throughout fifty years of group residing in the US, England, and Australia.