When Katie Carter’s son Billy was born in 1942 with significant developmental and physical disabilities, it would have been easy to feel lost.
Back then, children with disabilities were often institutionalized and the research, funding and public awareness needed to support them wasn’t there. Most parents didn’t have anywhere to turn.
Katie was a mother who wanted more for her son. And her love for him, and other children like him, inspired her to take action.
“There was nowhere for (Billy) to go and nowhere for anyone else to go,” said Katie’s niece, Harriet “Hattie” Schenk. “There were just no services (in Licking County) and she just felt like not only did she need them, but so many others did too.”
So Katie picked up the phone. She organized and spoke and started a movement to establish a school and other opportunities with people with disabilities. She helped lay the foundation of what is now the Licking County Board of Developmental Disabilities (LCBDD).
The gym at the E.S. Weiant Center is named for her.
“She left a legacy that people with disabilities lives’ are worthy of investment,” retired LCBDD superintendent Nancy Neely told the Newark Advocate after Katie’s death in 2010. “She was very good at getting this community to embrace and support the potential that kids and adults with disabilities had.”
‘One person crying out for help’
Kathryn “Katie” Kerrigan Carter was born in St. Louisville and graduated from Utica High School.
After marrying Robert “Bob” Carter, she moved to Newark. Their daughter Molly was was born in 1938 and Billy was born four years later.
Katie was dedicated to the constant care of her son. In a 1967 interview with the Advocate, she explained her perspective on raising her son.
“Parents with retarded children should have the attitude that this is the way they are, and this is the way I’m going to love them, instead of insisting they must be what you want them to be,” she said.
But she needed help.
“I was just one person crying out for help,” she said in the interview. “I never dreamed it would snowball like this.”
Katie began calling the parents of other disabled children, hoping to start a support network.
“She said that was a really big help, just getting together with those other mothers and knowing that other families had the challenges that she did,” Hattie said. “That was very important for getting by day to day.”
Their children weren’t able to go to public schools. But the parents wanted their children to have educational opportunities, without having to leave the county to attend state schools in Columbus or Mount Vernon.
They began making contacts and reaching out to community groups, including the Licking County chapter of the American Association of University Women. A member of the group, Eleanor S. Weiant, decided to take up the cause.
The first Licking County Council for Retarded Children started in 1952 — the first year the first class began meeting in a borrowed classroom at Mound School.
Katie decided on the name Startlight School, to symbolize “the light that shines in darkness.”
‘The light that shines’
Shortly after the first Starlight classes started, Katie realized her son Billy did not meet state eligibility guidelines to attend.
So she started the Starlight Country Day School, holding classes in her basement.
“I remember going there,” Hattie said. “Her basement was set up with tables and chairs and activities and things for the kids to do.”
After a year, the class was moved to the Salvation Army, according to the Advocate. Many of the students eventually transferred to other schools or started attending Starlight classes.
The original Starlight School moved around Licking County, from Second Presbyterian Church to classrooms at Conrad, Lincoln and Keller schools. Things shifted again when classes were held in the old Newark High School, then Hazelwood School and East Main Street Methodist Church, before moving again to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.
After a building levy was passed in 1965, the Eleanor S. Weiant Starlight School was built, finally putting all the classes under one roof, according to the Advocate.
Katie remained connected with the school and continued to visit occasionally.
When she had the opportunity to appear on two game shows, “Queen for the Day” and “Strike it Rich,” she used her winnings to buy outdoor playground equipment for the school.
As her son reached adulthood, Katie became an advocate for establishing residential housing in Licking County.
“She told me so many times, she was so worried about what would happen to (Billy) when she wasn’t there anymore, Hattie said. “She was a real advocate for group homes.”
A life of service
Katie was constantly helping others. She would help connect adults with disabilities to opportunities to learn to swim and enjoy recreation.
“My aunt was very conscious of physical activity and thought it was really important for disabled people as well,” Hattie said.
Katie and Bob would take big fishing trips, then host huge fish fry dinner dances at their home. They would donate any money they made to the Starlight School.
The Carters were active in the Tehran Grotto in Newark. Once before an event, Bob gave Katie money to purchase a nice dress. Instead, she went to a secondhand store and bought a cheap dress, using the rest of the money to help a family in need of clothes, Hattie said.
“Katie did a lot for a lot of people,” she said.
She was passionate about visiting senior citizens and supporting cancer patients, as well as disabled children. She received numerous awards for her community service.
No matter what she was doing, Katie was always a woman of action. She wasn’t afraid to take charge, even if that meant marching into a state senator’s office and speaking her mind.
“She got things done and people listened to her,” Hattie said.
‘Beyond my fondest dreams’
Katie’s daughter Molly died of leukemia in 1968. Billy died in 1982 at age 40.
After the death of her husband in the mid-80s, Katie moved to the Cleveland area to care for her sister. But she kept in contact with LCBDD.
In a 2004 letter to a former LCBDD public information officer, Katie shared her thoughts on how many things had changed for the better,
“It amazes me to read of the progress of the program and how many people are helped — beyond my fondest dreams,” she wrote. “So thankful I lived in a community that cares.”
Katie remained active into her mid-90s and died on Jan. 6, 2010 after several years of health problems, Hattie said. She was 97.
Letters poured in to her family, filled with memories of the impact Katie made on many lives. Her memorial service in St. Louisville was standing room only.
In her obituary, her family shared a quote that summarized her life motto.
It read: “My day is complete. I heard a child laugh.”