Lori Knapp Industries: 50 years of changing lives through love

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Bette, Lori, and Don Knapp Jr. circa 2011-2012. (Photo by Lori Knapp Industries)

By Melissa R. Collum  


For many people in the Prairie du Chien area they know the name Lori Knapp. What they may not know is that for the past 50 years, the Knapp family and Lori Knapp Industries (LKI) have been changing the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities throughout the state of Wis. and beyond. 

LKI was founded by Don and Bette Knapp in 1972  to create an opportunity to bring their daughter, Lori, home from a state run institution. “Don Sr. and I, we had this little girl that needed more help than all the love we could give her. So we found this very good place in Madison [Central Colony]that could help and work with her,” recalls Bette Knapp.  “We wanted to bring her home after she had all the training that she could have with them. We needed to find people who could help her do the things that she liked to do. To give her a place to come back to.” 

Lori, who had lived in Central Colony for eight years, was 13 years old when she returned to the Prairie du Chien community. The Knapp family worked with the state of Wis., the ARC (Association of Retarded Citizens), and Central Colony to create a new kind of family home for Lori and other residents. The first group home of its kind, the ‘Lori Knapp Home’ had eight children as residents, two of which are still living in LKI home settings.  

The ‘Lori Knapp Home’ was overwhelmingly successful and gained nationwide attention for the group home model and the success they were achieving with its residents. “Bringing them all out [of the institutions], we thought they should have a dad, a grandpa, a mom, a family,” states Bette. “That is their privilege and right to live in a home.” The ‘Lori Knapp Home’ was studied for both the model of home care but also for the way in which children in the home developed and thrived in the setting.  

The next thing the Knapps had to work on was an adult group home setting because Lori would grow older and could not remain in the children’s group home. In 1973 the ‘Meadow Lane Group Home’ was in the initial planning stages and was designed to serve eight adults. “There was difficulty in starting the adult group home on Meadow Lane because the neighbors at the time sued LKI because they did not want a group home in their neighborhood,” states Don Knapp Jr.  “They thought it was a business, rather than just a home. They were not mean people, they just did not know about people with disabilities.”  

The lawsuit went all the way to the Wis. Supreme Court and LKI won. “That changed laws for people with disabilities. That they had the right to live in their communities,” states Don. In the 1980s LKI started to add the number of group homes throughout the state. Communities would contact LKI and ask for their help in building and running group home models. According to Don, “The goal was never to be big, our goal was to bring Lori home.” Through LKI, the opportunities for people with disabilities to move out of institutions and into a home setting grew.  

In the late 1970s and early 1980s Crawford Co. had a number of people still in state institutions. According to the Wis. Department of Health and Human Services in 1971 a taskforce was started to find ways to move one third of the more than 180,000 current residents in state owned facilities to a communal living setting by 1980. LKI was on the forefront of this movement having created the first group home for children in 1972, prior to the state of Wis. taking these actions.  LKI brought every person from Crawford Co. who was in an institution, back to the community, by starting a number of group homes in Crawford, and surrounding counties. 

LKI would work with the parents to make the transition from state institutions to the group home setting. “Parents wanted to ensure that their children would be safe” posits Don, “and this was a new concept.” As a former social worker, Don, would meet with parents, along with state social workers, case managers, etc., to  alleviate parents’ concerns about their child’s placement. “Sometimes it would take four to six months to transition someone out of institutionalized care,” states Don. “Parents are and were always welcome to come to the house. We would have open houses. Their son or daughter can leave to spend time with their families. Everyone adjusted.” 

This is not where LKI stopped, it was just a beginning. “The next step for people was why are they not living in their own apartments or home or smaller homes? LKI built a four unit apartment and people are still living there!” states Don. “People went from living in an institution, to living in a group home, to living in an apartment. It is a wonderful thing giving people their independence.” 

Sandra Knapp, sister -in-law of Lori and wife of Don, reflects on the  lives that LKI has touched  “It has been wonderful to see lives changed. To experience the family share and love, that helps people flourish. To see that is such a blessing, it is even more than that. To see people’s lives changed that is what this whole thing is about.”

An additional change that has taken place within LKI was moving to a model that enables people to remain in their homes by providing In-Home services, also known as Supportive Home Care (SHC). These services aid people in remaining in their home to receive the care and support they need. A revolutionary part of SHC is the co-employment model. This model, sometimes called ‘employee leasing’, offers family members the opportunity to be paid for providing in home services. “Let’s say a client has a daughter or relative that wants to come in and take care of their family member. They become LKI employees and we pay them to care for their own relatives” states Don.  “At one time, we had over 5,000 W2s for all the people who were employed by LKI. We are keeping people in their homes.” 

Prema Friedlein, an employee with LKI for 22 years and the program manager for the Meadow Lane Home conveys that “It is a company that started from the heart. By taking Lori out of the institution and by doing that, there are so many wonderful things for people with disabilities are now able to do. It is a company that changes you too. You get back so much more than what you give.”  

For 50 years the Knapp family and LKI have been providing services for some of our most vulnerable population. “Always catered to the wards of the state. People with physical disabilities” states Don. “A lot of people would not take physical disabilities. Our first home had four wheel chairs. We also specialized in mental and behavioral disorders – those that others would not take.” 

LKI currently has 289 people in Independent Living Services, 46 people in residential homes, and 17 co - employees. “All people have dignity. The scriptures say that true religion is caring for the widows and the orphans,” offers Don. “So I have always believed that we have cared for them.  I always considered it ministry.”  

When asked the thing that was most important to her about LKI, Bette reflected “When you see the children and adults and you are for them, that is something very much to be proud of. . . you are loving them and changing their lives. They all changed with all the love that they got.”

LKI is often called the best kept secret in Prairie du Chien. For those who know of the services they provide, the lives that the Knapp family and LKI have touched and changed there is a single statement by Don that sums it all up.  “Lori changed the world not by what she did but by who she was.” 

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