100 years later, Leet-based Watson Institute remains focused on original mission

Monday, December 18, 2017 | 11:00 PM


The Hurt family toured six special education facilities, trying to find a good fit for their son Emmett.

As soon as they walked into The Watson Institute in Leet, just outside of Sewickley, they knew Emmett belonged.

“It was the place for Emmett. The children were happy, the staff was dedicated, engaged, focused on the children. When we saw that environment, we knew that's what we wanted,” said mom, Stacy Hurt, 47, of South Fayette.

The Watson Institute, incorporated in 1917, is celebrating its 100th year of operation.

And 100 years after Margaret and David T. Watson, a well-known international attorney who represented the likes of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, left their summer home to serve as a center to care for less fortunate and crippled children, The Watson Institute continues to follow their mission to meet the needs of children with disabilities.

“You can't lose focus of that. What was their intent? And what were their wishes 100 years ago? I think they would be very proud of what has developed here and the services we provide,” CEO Barry Bohn said. “It's changed to serve the needs of the community on what is needed, but at the core of it, it's serving children with disabilities.”

Today, The Watson Institute serves roughly 500 children from 70 school districts at several locations including its Sewickley Valley base, with programs and schools also operating in Sharpsburg, Friendship and South Fayette. It serves children with autism spectrum disorder and other neurological impairments, brain injuries and down syndrome in a school setting.

In 1917, the nonprofit opened as The D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children, serving girls ages 3 to 16 on the site of the Watson's former Sunny Hills summer estate. It later served boys as well.

Throughout the years, The Watson Institute served children with tuberculosis, cerebral palsy and polio, Bohn said.

The D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children was one of four schools in the country — alongside Harvard, Northwestern and Stanford — to be chosen by the National Association of Infantile Paralysis to provide care for epidemic areas.

In 1953, Watson became a part of history when it was one of four clinical trial sites in the country to test Dr. Jonas Salk's polio vaccine.

“We're happy to have played a small role, and it's great to be named in history,” Bohn said.

In 1952, approximately 56,000 Americans contracted polio, an infectious disease that can lead to paralysis. More than 3,000 of them died from the disease. The success of the trials administered at the Watson led to more widespread vaccinations.

By 1957, the Watson Institute states, the number of polio cases in the country had declined to 5,600. That number continued to drop.

In the 1960s and '70s, the Watson Institute began offering physical therapy and rehab. As children they were serving grew up, the nonprofit began to offer those services for adults, operating a rehab hospital.

In 1999, board members made the decision to go back to the Watson Institute's roots to focus on children, selling the rehab hospital, which included 60 percent of the business, Bohn said.

“In my eyes, it was a real game changer because for us, we started focusing on our core strengths, our core strengths with children, our core strengths with special education services in the school that we were running,” he said. “We've been able to grow that and serve more and more children.”

Throughout the last decade, the Watson Institute has attempted to remain focused on providing services to disabled children, while expanding further into the community.

That has meant opening new facilities to be closer to the students.

In January, the Watson Institute opened its Education Center South in South Fayette. Students from the Leet campus transitioned to be closer to home when the new school opened. The school, which can hold 112 students, already has 100 attending.

Phase II of the project, opening 10 additional classrooms at the school, with further specialized programs, is set for completion in the next several months.

Emmett Hurt, 12, was one of those students.

Emmett, who has a chromosomal abnormality so rare that it doesn't even have a name, spent 45 minutes on the bus each day traveling to the Leet facility, with a nurse at his side. Emmett is nonverbal, nonambulatory and functions at the level of a 6-month-old baby.

He suffers from asphyxia and often turned green from motion sickness on the ride to and from school, said mom Stacy Hurt, who was diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal cancer in 2014.

With so much on her plate, having Emmett closer to home and knowing he was arriving at school happier, with a smile on his face, made mom ecstatic.

“When you have these two adverse circumstances in your life, if you have something going your way, it's absolutely amazing,” Stacy Hurt said. The new school provided that extra peace for mom and dad.

“For Emmett's life and for our life, it's just made it so much better,” she said. “The facility is beautiful, the staff is fantastic.”

Stacy Hurt has a dream of one day winning the lottery, just so she can give the staff at the Watson Institute everything they've ever wanted because of how much they help her family.

“I consider them an extension of our family, because they care about Emmett so much,” she said.

The goal at the Watson Institute is to work with parents and school districts to best place students and work to get them back into traditional classrooms, over a period of time, Bohn said.

They're constantly reviewing surveys from parents and school districts to better find out how they can meet the needs of the students and offering specialized programing at their schools to meet those needs.

In every instance, Bohn said, they come back to the goal of helping disabled children.

As the board of directors engaged in a strategic planning process to prepare for the future within the last two years, they decided to pull out the 100-year-old will of David and Margaret Watson and read it.

Their focus is simple: “What are the issues in today's environment and developing transitions for them and developing transitions back to the school district. ... For us, we're trying to be as focused as we can be, to not try to be all things to all people, but to be the very best at serving the special needs population,” Bohn said.

Looking at the will, Bohn said, it's impressive how aligned the school is today with the mission 100 years ago of the Watsons.

“We're stewards of resources and the mission that we were entrusted with and we devote ourselves to that,” he said.

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.