Dorothy Wilson is known as the wife of entrepreneur Kemmons Wilson, founder of the Holiday Inn hotel chain, but what’s not as well-known is that Dorothy was an entrepreneur in her own right.
While her husband focused on the innovation in the business world, Dorothy was quietly helping launch a nonprofit that would significantly advance the way Memphis cared for its citizens with disabilities.
Dorothy was one of the founders of a program that would evolve into Shelby County Residential and Vocational Services (SRVS), a 55-year-old organization that provides services for adults, seniors and children with disabilities.
In the 1950’s, individuals with disabilities were generally hidden from the public sphere, kept at home or institutionalized. They lived limited lives with little opportunity for social interaction and meaningful occupations.
Dorothy’s nephew suffered from polio, which kept him immobilized and required him to spend a year in an iron lung respirator. She was involved in his care and in supporting his sister, which motivated her to want to help other families of children with disabilities.
“These pioneers in the 1950s started talking about what really needed to be done,” said Ellen Westbrook, development manager for SRVS.
Dorothy served on three committees that pinpointed three major areas of need: special education programming for children, a residential campus for adults with disabilities, and the opportunity for those individuals to secure meaningful work.
Dorothy and her philanthropic associates embarked on a grassroots campaign to raise funding to bring their vision to fruition. They hosted bean suppers, inviting guests to learn about their plans and consider donating to or volunteering for the cause.
Dorothy chaired a House-to-House campaign knocking on doors across the city to raise money and rally support to invest in a program that would transform the lives of people with disabilities. She managed to help mobilize 6,000 mothers who helped raise $30,000, the equivalent of roughly $200,000 in today’s currency value.
“I don’t think we could mobilize that many people today, and that’s with social media,” Westbrook said. “Memphis had these leaders step forward and make things happen when there was no pathway.”
(SOS was modelled after a shop in Chattanooga).
In 1962, within five months of the House-to-House campaign, an occupational workshop was established, starting with seven employees and two contracts. It provided a safe work environment where adults with intellectual disabilities could earn a competitive wage, learn valuable job skills, build a strong work ethic, and enhance their self-confidence and social skills.
“Dorothy Wilson was as big an entrepreneur on the philanthropic side as Kemmons Wilson was on the business side,” Westbrook said. “At that time women did not own and operate enterprises, and she raised the money to acquire a property, hire a staff and get it started. She said, ‘We’ll find a way to make it happen.’”
In the 1970's, the first home for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities was established at the Old Kennedy Hospital, now the University of Memphis South Campus, followed in 1973 by an adult activity center to provide day services.
Additional programs were launched in the late 1980's and early 1990's, including the Children & Youth Department to serve children with severe physical and intellectual disabilities; the Employment Concepts program, to find off-site jobs in the community for adults with intellectual disabilities; and the Family Support program, to provide assistance to families in the community.
Today, SRVS supports more than 1,600 people through its programs and services and is the largest and only service provider to offer all-in-one services to people with disabilities in Tennessee. The nonprofit has satellite learning centers in Collierville and Covington, and the Employment and Community First CHOICES extends into Fayette, Hardeman, Hayward, Lauderdale, Shelby and Tipton counties.
“SRVS is only organization in West Tennessee to provide services from birth to end of life,” Westbrook said. “Many people with disabilities are living well into their seventies and beyond, so it’s needed more than ever.”
The occupational shop closed as best practices evolved and the organization realized it was more productive to have clients involved in community employment. Today, SRVS has about 50 corporate partners, from AutoZone to FedEx Forum to Miss Cordelia’s Grocery, who train and employ 170 adults with disabilities, with very little turnover.
“People get into the jobs, and the support and training is there. Employers find they’re the most dedicated workers,” Westbrook said.
As with many nonprofits, SRVS faces funding challenges. The organization has historically received funding on a fee-for-services basis through state government, but that has diminished as budgets and insurance reimbursements have changed. SRVS is facing a gap of $1.5 million, which they must raise annually through the private sector.
“So, we’re back to a Dorothy Wilson moment when we need the community to step forward,” Westbrook said. “The services are there and proven to work and provide best practices and care, but we need community support to close that gap in funding. We’re the hub for people with disabilities.”
In celebration of SRVS 55th anniversary, First Tennessee Foundation has stepped up to help fund these critical programs, matching donations dollar for every dollar, up to $25,000.
“Memphis is generous and responsive when they know what the need is,” Westbrook said. “Bravo Memphis. Not every community has that support. Be proud that Memphis has done that, but we must continue what started with Dorothy Wilson and that group.”
Dorothy was posthumously honored recently for her work during SRVS’ Sparkling Nights event, which was co-hosted by WMC’s Joe Birch and Ron Childers and attended by numerous Memphis business, government and community leaders.
Westbrook said Dorothy’s five living children continue to give back to the community.
“It’s breathtaking to have a family so devoted to the best of community on the philanthropic and business side to build a better Memphis.”
Dorothy’s daughter, Betty Moore, said she and her siblings learned from the best.
“The best way I could describe my mother, she was a silent servant,” she said. “She never wanted any recognition. She just wanted to do whatever she could do in any instance to help out with any cause she had a great passion for. She was never thinking of the limelight. She quietly took on causes and tried to make a difference.”
Learn more about their impact by watching this video.