Bessie Benner Metzenbaum Center: Then and Now

The Bessie Benner Metzenbaum Center, was originally founded as The Metzenbaum Foundation by James Metzenbaum, a prominent Cleveland attorney and state senator, in memory of his wife Bessie who died in 1920 after 14 years of marriage. After her death, James became reclusive and moved from his home in Euclid to a downtown hotel. He visited his wife’s resting place, a mausoleum in Cleveland’s Lakeview Cemetery, two or three times a week and devoted the remainder of his life doing benevolent work in her memory.


Bessie's home

One night in the 1940s, he could not sleep so he got in his car to take a drive. He drove out to Geauga County and found himself in the vicinity of Caves and Cedar Roads. He spotted a parcel of land that he knew he had to develop into a memorial to Bessie. He purchased 100 acres on the northeast corner of the intersection and named it Wisteria Hill after the fragrant vine that his wife had grown at their home in Euclid.

In 1948, the Bessie Benner Metzenbaum Foundation was incorporated and 50 acres of land was deeded to the foundation. In 1958, the foundation grounds were opened for the use of various groups such as the scouts and campfire girls. In 1960 a cabin was erected for the use of the Cerebral Palsy Association and the Euclid Day Care Center. Mr. Metzenbaum would often visit the property working on the land, planting trees, and enjoying the outdoors. Mr. Metzenbaum died in January of 1961 at the age of 77.

Metzenbaum Center

Construction of the Bessie Benner Metzenbaum Opportunity School began in the summer of 1965 and was finished the following spring. The first full year of operation began in September of 1966 with 59 students enrolled under the leadership of Superintendent George Clemens, having been appointed in 1965. The school was still operating under the auspices of the county welfare department.

Metzenbaum Center

In 1967, S.B. 169 was passed which provided for county boards of developmental disabilities. These boards were to consist of seven members, five of which were to be appointed by the county commissioners and one to be appointed by the probate judge with the judge filling out the remaining slot. Since the passage of S.B. 169, the Bessie Benner Metzenbaum Center has operated under the Geauga County Board of Developmental Disabilities. Operating funds come from state and local sources and Medicare provides funds for the Residential program.

In 1971, the center received a $350,000 grant for the construction of a sheltered industries facility. In 1976, four residences were built after receiving a grant of $100,000 from the Bessie Benner Metzenbaum Foundation. In 1977, the official name was changed from the Bessie Benner Metzenbaum Opportunity School to the Bessie Benner Metzenbaum Center in order to incorporate all three facets of the facility: school, workshop, and residence.

In 1987, a new Adult Services Workshop was built on the western edge of the property and Superintendent George Clemens retired after 23 years on the job. Daniel Larrick, Superintendent, succeeded Mr. Clemens as the second superintendent of the Bessie Benner Metzenbaum Center. Major renovations and additions to the school, including a physical education facility and a therapy pool, were completed in 1991 under Mr. Larrick’s leadership. Mr. Larrick was succeeded by Donald Rice in 2006. Mr. Rice remains the current superintendent.

The Bessie Benner Metzenbaum Center has come a long way since its inception over 40 years ago with its initial enrollment of nine children. Today, they serve over 750 individuals and their families.

Many of us have driven along Cedar Road in Chesterland and wondered what goes on at the growing complex called the Bessie Benner Metzenbaum Center. In 1993, the program marked their 25th year of providing services to Geauga County’s citizens with developmental disabilities. During this time, the program has undergone tremendous change. In particular, changes over the past five years have created one of the finest programs in the State of Ohio.

Metzenbaum Center

The program is operated by the seven member Geauga County Board of Developmental Disabilities. Five members are appointed by the Geauga County Commissioners and two are appointed by the Geauga County Probate Court. All board members serve as volunteers for four year terms and provide the overall direction for the program.

Over the course of the past five years, the board has completed a series of capital improvement projects to upgrade and modernize the buildings you see on Cedar Road. The resulting state-of-the-art facilities provide a supportive environment for the delivery of a broad range of specialized services. Among other things, one of the major improvements was to the residences. The four houses located on the campus were renovated in 2014 to better serve the individuals. These units now have single-occupancy rooms with en-suite bathrooms and roll-in showers as well as larger, more open social areas. One house features a centralized commercial kitchen where meals for all houses will be prepared.

While these physical changes have been exciting, those associated with the program talk more about the new philosophies and practices now being used. These changes are making it possible for individuals with disabilities to achieve more than was ever thought possible a few years ago. The traditional approach to the care and treatment of individuals with disabilities frequently resulted in their isolation from the community. Emphasis was placed upon tender, loving care which provided protection in segregated settings. While this traditional approach was well intended, the result was often a lowering of expectations for the individual. The assumption was often made that individuals with impaired intellectual functioning were incapable of making even the most basic decisions of daily living.

Over the course of the last few years, this approach has been greatly improved throughout the State of Ohio and, most particularly, here in Geauga County. The emphasis now is upon skill development aimed at achieving the maximum level of independence possible for each individual in a natural environment, often a home setting. The individuals who now attend the programs offered by the Geauga County Board of Developmental Disabilities spend much of their time working, living, and playing in the Geauga County community.

Metzenbaum Center

The program provides a broad array of services to benefit children from birth through age two. Heavy emphasis is placed upon early intervention services for children. A wide variety of specialized services such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, music therapy, and water therapy are offered. Throughout these early years, focus is continually placed upon developing the skills required for success upon admission to a local public school.

Of course, a major part of living is one’s job or employment. Over the past five years, new services emphasizing community based employment have been added. This has resulted in community based enclaves and a variety of job opportunities in the surrounding community. Individuals who participate in these programs become tax paying members of their communities just like everyone else.

Over the years, the board has been confronted with the need for more and more residential services. This need frequently arises from the death of parents who have been lifelong care givers for their child. For many years, the board has operated a residential facility at the center’s location on Cedar Road. The center works closely with Maple Leaf Community Residences who owns and operates 22 community homes.

Hopefully, this information will give you further food for thought the next time you drive past the facilities on Cedar Road. Every county in the State of Ohio offers a similar program for individuals with developmental disabilities and The Bessie Benner Metzenbaum Center has been a fixture in our county for over 40 years. The program has grown and expanded during this time and it continues to provide opportunities for individuals who have much to offer the Geauga County community. Recent efforts to expand the abilities of these individuals places our program at the forefront of current philosophies and practices.

Bessie Benner Metzenbaum Center
8200 Cedar Road
Chesterland, OH 44026


Geauga News
Author: Geauga News