Tom Friedel wears many hats, but he doesn't mind at all.
The 37-year-old is a restaurant waiter and occasionally helps with cooking duties in the kitchen. He also runs the cash register at an antiques store and flea market.
Friedel has been a resident of the Village of the Blue Rose for the past 12 years. Situated on 60 acres overlooking the Mississippi River near Clarksville, Mo., the village has the appearance of a quaint getaway destination — including a cozy bed and breakfast, a restaurant called The Lodge with home-cooked meals, and the Red Barn, an antiques store and flea market. But as visitors quickly discover, there's more to the mission.
While the work seems like a lot some days, Friedel does it all with a joyful heart, because Rose Gronemeyer is at his side.
Gronemeyer, a special education teacher at Sacred Heart School in Florissant for nearly four decades, and several friends opened the village in 2000 to provide a safe, nurturing environment for young adults with special needs — a place where after their education they could live, work and — most of all — grow in body, mind and spirit.
As a resident houseparent for the past decade, Gronemeyer has shared in their successes as well as their sorrows. She has celebrated at sporting events, helped teach job skills and enjoyed game and movie nights. She's also been there for residents who have lost loved ones.
After Friedel's father died last year, Gronemeyer and Friedel's family were there to help him through his grief. Sitting at the kitchen table in the home they share with two other young men, Friedel glanced at Gronemeyer with a solemn look on his face. "That was hard," he said, nodding. "With a lot of love and compassion, we made it."
Friedel described Gronemeyer as a mother "in many different ways. We are blessed to have her."
"What's going to happen?"
Gronemeyer began teaching at Sacred Heart School in Florissant in 1968. During her 39-year career at Sacred Heart, she educated more than 300 children with special needs. Her classroom, under the auspices of the archdiocesan Department of Special Education, typically had anywhere from eight to 15 children at a time.
Over the years, parents would ask her, "What's going to happen to my child when they complete their education?" It was a tough question to answer. Some of her students after high school might have moved on to the workforce, such as a sheltered workshop for people with disabilities. But others may have struggled to find employment or something similarly meaningful after their school years.
The Village of the Blue Rose started in 1989 as a dream. Gronemeyer and several parents imagined a village where young adults with special needs could live and work in a safe and loving environment. In 1992, they opened a resale shop in Florissant to raise money to bring the dream to fruition. By 1996, they became a nonprofit organization with a board of directors and began looking at property.
Gronemeyer and her friend Judy Browning began searching for land to build the village. Originally, they found some property that was a little closer to St. Louis, but when they went before the planning and zoning committee to rezone the land, they were met with some resistance from nearby residents.
"They thought they'd get 'loose' and we would have to go out looking for them," Gronemeyer recalled. That was all she needed to hear to look elsewhere. "I said, 'we're not bringing our dear ones here.' I couldn't believe they objected to God's special people."
Eventually, the women came across a 60-acre parcel of land in Pike County along Highway 79, just between Clarksville and Louisiana, Mo. Perched high atop the river on Macintosh Hill, the land offers sweeping views of the Mississippi River, with the numerous birds, deer and wild turkeys roaming the property.
As they walked through the house on the grounds, the two spotted a mirror and some light fixtures adorned with blue roses. It reminded Gronemeyer of something she read in a book called "The Blue Rose," by Gerda Klein, and which now hangs as a cross-stitched message at The Lodge restaurant.
Blue roses, it says, "are rare and require special attention and care for them to grow. Much like our residents, with a little extra care, encouragement, patience and love, they will thrive and grow into something beautiful."
It was just the sign they needed — this was the place where their "dear ones" would live.
A big family
In the kitchen of The Lodge, Kim Rousan and Melissa Hernandez were busy preparing ingredients for the lunch menu. Residents Megan Speichinger and Julie Frost were helping wash pots and pans in an adjacent room. Another resident, Marikate Benhardt, was away in St. Louis to attend her mother's funeral.
Rousan has served as manager of The Lodge and also as a job coach for the residents for a decade. At The Lodge, she's seen her share of baby showers, gatherings of red hat ladies, class reunions and special events, such as their famous Mother's Day brunch and a soup and chili dinner in January. Sometimes, families book all three rooms of the B&B — with quaint names such as Riverview Suite, Magnolia Loft and Southern Exposure — to have the entire place to themselves.
While the village is a getaway destination for some rest and relaxation, Rousan teared up thinking about how it's more than that. "We're like a big family here," she said. "I call them my kids. They're very special to me."
The village has experienced financial hardships in the past few years. Fundraisers are held throughout the year, but they haven't been generating enough as in past years. With no government help (the village is licensed by the Missouri Department of Mental Health), the residents rely on the generosity of donors, as well as revenue generated from the B&B, restaurant and retail shops.
Residents must be at least 21 years old and semi-independent. Some residents' families live near the village, but others live in the St. Louis area, which is more than an hour away. Families are involved in the village's activities, Gronemeyer stressed. Residents also are active at nearby St. Joseph Parish in Louisiana, attending and serving at Mass with Father Lou Dorn and becoming involved with the Knights of Columbus and helping with activities such as the parish fish fry.
After Gronemeyer's retirement from teaching at Sacred Heart in 2007, she knew she wanted to remain active with the village. Her husband, Lawrence, had passed away in 2002, and her own children were now grown. What was stopping her from moving to Clarksville as a houseparent? She already knew most of the residents anyway. Tom Friedel, and fellow residents Donald Ringling and Scott Walters are former students of hers. Some of them still call her Mrs. Gronemeyer from their school days — but others call her mom.
Walters has known Gronemeyer for the past 26 years. Wrapping his arms around her, Walters said she is like an "adopted" mom, especially after his mother died almost three years ago.
"What did we always say? Where's mom at?" Gronemeyer asked him.
Walters thumped his chest with his fist.
"She's always going to be in our heart, isn't she?" she told him.
As a teacher, Gronemeyer taught Walters and the other students values of love, respect, and care for one another. She continues that with them now as adults — all while having a good sense of humor.
"He was a rotten little kid," she said with a hearty laugh.
"Don't write that down," Walters told a reporter as he grinned.
"The rewards here are great," Gronemeyer said. "One day they'll take care of me."
Village of the Blue Rose
Since the 1990s, the Village of the Blue Rose has provided a nurturing residential environment and employment opportunities to adults with special needs. Overlooking the Mississippi River, the 60-acre private property includes a restaurant, bed and breakfast and antique shop and flea market. The restaurant is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. To make reservations for the B&B or restaurant, call (573) 242-3464.
The village doesn't receive government funding and relies on the support of the community and volunteers. A GoFundMe page recently was established at www.gofundme.com/help-our-village.
The Village of the Blue Rose also has a resale shop in Florissant. The shop at 525 Rue St. Francois is open Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m.-2 p.m. For more information, call (314) 830-4211.
The Village of the Blue Rose is located at 12533 Hwy 79 in Clarksville, Mo. Contributions are tax deductible. For more information, visit www.villageofthebluerose.org.
"Blue roses are rare and require special attention and care for them to grow. Much like our residents, with a little extra care, encouragement, patience and love, they will thrive and grow into something beautiful."
— Cross-stitched sign at the Village of the Blue Rose