Obituary: Shirley A. Small / Tireless advocate for intellectually disabled

July 29, 1923 - Jan. 22, 2014

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Shirley A. Small was a thirtysomething mother of four in the late 1950s when she and her husband moved to Alexandria, Egypt, to work at the Schutz American School. In addition to taking care of her own family, Mrs. Small's duties as school housemother meant taking care of dozens of other children -- including buying food from local vendors.

She ended up learning to speak Arabic in her three years there. The language might not have been particularly useful when she returned to the U.S., but the experience at the school also gave her the chance to work with children with varied backgrounds, to learn how to reach out to those in the community who could fill needs and to hone her organizational and planning abilities.

Those skills were put to good use during the course of career spent predominantly working with and for people with intellectual disabilities, then described as mental retardation.

Mrs. Small, who was 90 when she died Wednesday at the Golden Living Center in Mt. Lebanon, continued working as a grief counselor for intellectually disabled adults until a few years ago, according to her daughter, Nancy Small of Mt. Lebanon.

The Ellwood City native, the second of six children, earned a psychology degree from Geneva College in Beaver Falls in 1945 before getting married to John Small, who completed his military service in World War II. The couple quickly had two boys, followed a few years later by two girls.

Mr. Small was working as a teacher and coach in the Dayton, Ohio, area when the couple applied do something in the missionary field through the Presbyterian church. That's how they ended up in Egypt in 1958.

When the Smalls were ready to move back to the U.S., they first bought a car from Germany and drove around Europe for six weeks -- camping with their four kids -- before taking the family and the car on an oceanliner for the one-week voyage to America.

They headed to Upper St. Clair, where Mr. Small had landed a teaching job. After a year or so, Mrs. Small investigated and found that some places would help pay for schooling for people who agreed to work there. She ended up earning her master's in social work from the University of Pittsburgh and working at Western Center in Canonsburg.

She told a Pittsburgh Press reporter that working there was an eye-opening introduction to the impact that an intellectually disabled person has on a family. "Eventually, I couldn't help but devote my life to the belief that each individual has the right to experience life to the fullest with the greatest amount of independence possible for that person," she said, according an article published in July 1988.

Not long after, she went to the St. Peter's Child Development Centers, which she would develop into a system of several centers during her 20-year tenure, according to her daughter. In addition to counseling families on how to help their children, she became involved in efforts to change rules around what services schools needed to provide.

Nancy Small remembers her mother traveling to Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., numerous times to advocate for requiring that children diagnosed with mental retardation have access to school services by age 2. Early intervention made a big difference in helping them develop to their fullest abilities, she believed.

Later, she spent several years as executive director of Southwinds Inc., an organization that placed intellectually disabled adults into community-based homes. In the 1988 Press article, Mrs. Small said the group had 33 adults in 11 homes and a waiting list of more than 200.

Over the years, she also worked as an adjunct instructor at Community College of Allegheny County.

Her personal life reflected her love of community and adventure. She traveled, including taking a trip to China. Mr. Small died in 1975, but Mrs. Small continued to host holiday gatherings for family and loved to have people over. Her groups of friends included a quilting group, a group that began as tennis friends but stuck together after people stopped playing much and a group of friends that grew up together around Ellwood City.

In addition to her daughter, Nancy, Mrs. Small is survived by two sons, John Smallfield of Phoenix and George Small of Plymouth, Mass.; another daughter, Susan Small of Dormont; a sister, Sylvia Wilson of Monroeville; a brother, Gerald Wilson of Greenwich, Conn.; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Friends will be welcomed at 10 a.m. Saturday at Beinhauers Mortuary on Washington Road in Peters. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. and a luncheon will follow at the Beinhauer community room.


Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2018.


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