Featured Project: Voices of Change
Shirley Pickens, director, Polk Center, 2008-2020
Shirley Pickens retired in 2020 as director of Polk Center, a state institution for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Venango County. Shirley spent her entire professional career at Polk, serving as director for 12 years and in other professional roles for three decades prior.
Fresh out of college in 1981 with an art degree, Shirley took a job as a direct care assistant at Polk. Having grown up in nearby Sandy Creek, she was familiar with the institution. She expected the job to be temporary. Instead, she discovered a calling to serve the people who lived there and to make their well-being her life’s work.
In this interview, Shirley reflects on what Polk Center has meant to her, the positive changes she witnessed during her long tenure, and the honor of being of service to the people who live there.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania opened Polk Center in 1897 as what was then called an “institution for the feeble-minded.” The 100 acre site in Venango County was chosen because of its natural resources, fertile farmland and railway access. By the 1950s, Polk grew in size to 3,000 acres and its census reached a peak of 3,400 people. Overcrowding and other problems at Polk became known to the public in the 1960s and 1970s. Disability rights advocates called for sweeping changes, including allowing residents to leave Polk center and receive support services in their communities.
In 2019, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services announced plans to close Polk Center within a few years. Closure is expected in 2023.
Preserve and Share
The Western Pennsylvania Disability History and Action Consortium preserves and shares the historic struggle of Western Pennsylvanians with disabilities to attain human and civil rights.
We educate the public about disability history in order to improve community access, participation and equal opportunity, and to ensure disability rights through existing and new policies and laws.
We join stakeholders across Pennsylvania to advocate on policies that ensure the civil rights of people with disabilities.
Western Pennsylvania has played a significant role in the history of disability rights. From Arc Allegheny’s efforts in the 1970s to expose abusive conditions in state institutions to Allegheny County’s development of the first paratransit system in the nation in the 1980s, Western Pennsylvania has taken a stand.