Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 11:00 am
When Steve Raasch was appointed project manager of renovation for the Bethesha Lutheran Home in Watertown last year, he relished the opportunity to help people less fortunate than himself. On his staff, he had Eppstein Uhen Architects employees such as Steve Wagner, who was genuinely concerned for the residents of Bethesda, one of whom waited for Wagner each morning, curious about Wagner taking measurements at a residence undergoing changes.
"It’s the largest project I had even been involved with," Raasch said. "It feels like a number of small projects, because it was planned to be done in four phases. Bethesda has many people in wheelchairs and a staff trying to transport as many as 40 people down a single corridor all at one time."
Bethesda provides assisted living services and shelter to developmentally disabled people.
Raasch attended the Milwaukee School of Engineering and received his degree in architecture from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He worked briefly as a surveyor before joining Eppstein Uhen. As project manager, his duties involved every detail in seeing that goals were met on time.
Initially, Bethesda wanted to do a few renovations, which Raasch described as putting a bandage on the problems. Not only was the residential part of the campus crowded, but the offices were so scattered, the staff spent much of its time traveling from one office to another. The campus is so large, that even now it’s a short drive from the corporate offices to the home’s new Dierker Hall.
"We first looked at the entire campus, and interviewed a core group of Bethesda’s decision makers. Then we suggested a master plan. We knew that the national trends were more residential and less institutional," Raasch said.
"Their existing dormitories were cold, sterile and built more for easy maintenance than for warmth and appearance. We followed up with a written proposal, some conceptual construction plans, estimated costs and a time line for completion. By then, the estimated cost was between $45 and $50 million," Raasch said.
Following the master plan developed by Eppstein Uhen, the first two phases have been completed, and phases three and four were carried over into this year.
Eppstein Uhen Architects and Bethesda’s volunteer board of directors selected The Bentley Co. of Milwaukee as the general contractor.
The duties of project manager for Bethesda landed on the shoulders of Nate Keller, a young man from Harrisburg, Pa., with a civil engineering degree from UW-Madison.
"Our early involvement in the conceptual and design stages allowed us to share ideas about construction solutions, reducing costs where possible, and to deliver Bethesda’s vision successfully within the project budget," said Keller. "One of the challenges involved working in occupied buildings, phasing out old dormitories, and moving people through corridors during demolition."
Before actual work began, Keller sat through many meetings with the architects and the Bethesda building committee. While drawings were being finalized, Keller’s group showed Bethesda’s building committee how and where cost reductions could be made.
Once work started in July 2001, Keller had weekly meetings with the company’s sub-contractors. Bethesda, benefiting as a nonprofit corporation, did most of the purchasing of building materials.
Keller took frequent trips between Milwaukee and Watertown and Bethesda’s 400-acre campus to communicate with Don Schliepp, Bentley’s project superintendent. To date, the smiles on the faces of residents and staff at Bethesda are evidence of a job well done.
Debborah Zubke manages the north central region for Bethesda Lutheran Home and Services Inc., which includes Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas. A graduate of UW-River Falls with a degree in education, Zubke took employment at Bethesda as a young woman sometime between student teaching and getting married. Over the past 27 years, she’s worked her way up from entry level to one of five regional administrators.
With the need to downsize the number of residents on the Bethesda campus, Zubke has been busy training supervisors and relocating people, negotiating to obtain group homes over the past three years.
"We’ve opened eight new homes in the community," she said. "We’re now serving almost as many people outside Bethesda as we have on campus. I had no doubt that what we were doing (the renovation) at Bethesda was a good move. We had four people to a room, many in wheelchairs, and not even enough electrical outlets for all the G-tubes (gastric feeding tubes for those who can’t swallow).
"At first people were nervous about being alone in one room, which is understandable. They got to pick out their carpeting, including its decor, like their bedspreads," Zubke said.
Bethesda houses about 20 juveniles, the youngest being about 11 years old. Most residents are up in years, a few close to 100.
"It was amazing to me," said Zubke. "We had this vision. And it was a joy to work with this team – to see our dreams come true. They even put wooden trim and a mantel around the fireplace in the great room. Visitors come and say, ‘Wow! Look at this kitchen. It’s just like home.’"
Part of Zubke’s job requires an understanding of the latest Medicare changes and new legislation for federal, state and county funding.
"Most states have a waiver program that allows us to use Medicare money (for expenses) outside the institution. Wisconsin doesn’t," Zubke said.
Fortunately, Bethesda Lutheran has a large, dedicated donor base within the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church. Watertown is a predominately Lutheran community, and that population provides the home with a cadre of volunteers, some of whom function as guardians for Bethesda residents such as Marge Petersen, who do not have family in the immediate area.
Petersen can’t remember exactly how old she is – somewhere between 84 and 85 – although she knows the month and the day she was born. Developmentally disabled, she’s been living at Bethesda since 1947.
That would make her about 27 or 28 years old when she first became a resident. Today, she’s living in the new Dierker Hall with her own bedroom for the first time in her life.
Petersen says she’s "retired" now. For years, she worked in the ceramics studio, one of many occupational departments staffed by Bethesda teacher-trainers and supervisors to provide their residents something with activities to add meaning to their daily lives.
Petersen is a member of the bell-ringer choir at chapel. She attends cooking, music and relaxation classes. Sometimes on Friday nights, she and some of the other residents are transported to the Senior Center in Watertown for dinner, after which they play bingo. "I like the polka band," Petersen said, laughing.
Petersen was born and raised in Omaha, Neb., where her father owned a greenhouse. All of her three sisters and three brothers have since passed away.
"My nephew comes to visit me … every year; he brings his trailer," she said, talking in a halting manner, raising her head with every few words. Her nephew travels from Texas or Oklahoma – she isn’t sure which – and stays a couple weeks, parking at Camp Matz, a nature retreat and camp grounds on the Bethesda campus.
When asked about her old residence at Bethesda, Petersen laughed and replied, "Oh, don’t mention that place! No way! I don’t miss it at all."
April 30, 2004 Small Business Times, Milwaukee