Rainbows United celebrates 50 years of helping children
How a Wichita nonprofit has been uplifting children for half a decade.
On a bright fall day, sunlight is streaming into a pre-K classroom at Kids Point, part of the Rainbows United campus in east Wichita.
It’s full of color and warmth, with cozy places to sit and play. The half-dozen students are working on making turkeys out of Play-Doh, adding feathers as part of an exercise about learning numbers.
They all speak at once when their teacher, Miss Autumn, enters the room.
“I'm putting four because my number I remember was four.”
“And your number was what?”
“Number eight … My number was eight.”
“What was your number Andy? Six? Six.
“Sylvia, what was your number?”
It’s the type of scene that Linda Weir-Enegren imagined 50 years ago when she founded Rainbows. And it couldn't have been any more different than what she encountered while working at the Kansas Neurological Institute in Topeka, doing research as a recent college graduate in the late 1960s.
“Nothing in my life had prepared me for what I saw in that institution,” Weir-Enegren said. “The facilities we have today are light years different from the facilities 50 years ago.
“But at that time, there were no residential cottages per se. There were wards, and those wards were sparsely furnished, if furnished at all. It was not unusual to see very young children sitting on wooden benches with no activities.”
The memory still makes her emotional, even though decades have passed. Mentally disabled people, including children, were essentially warehoused in those days.
Weir-Enegren thought she could do better … and she has.
Rainbows has served more than 60,000 children with special needs and their families since it was founded in 1972. The first class in the basement of Pleasant Valley United Methodist Church had five children, their mothers as volunteers and Weir-Enegren.
Today, in addition to Kids Point, Rainbows’ 250 employees also staff Kids Cove in west Wichita and Camp Woodchuck, a summer program for children. It also has legions of volunteers it can turn to for help.
Weir-Enegren was 25 when she started Rainbows, and she said she had little professional experience and even less money. So what made her think she could succeed?
“I've asked myself that a million times, and it's quite a source for introspection,” said Weir-Enegren, a 1965 graduate of Wichita North High School who later graduated from the University of Kansas.
“I think at some point people would've done this. But I think it would've been a very long time before that happened.
“And I think that that was the reason for the intensity of my efforts. I believed that if I didn't do it, nobody was going to do it for a really long time.”
Weir-Enegren said the spark for Rainbows came from a conversation she had with a family whose child was at the Neurological Institute. They hoped their son, Larry, could learn some basic self-help skills so he could live at home with them.
“That is the first time that I started to think of this whole thing from a family's point of view,” Weir-Enegren said.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I can find other ways to help the children here.’ And then I thought, ‘Wait a second, what if they never have to come here at all? What if as a community, we reclaim our children and these children come back to the community and our children never go away to a concrete building again.’ ”
In addition to working with children with special needs, Rainbows also has kids who are typically developing in its daycare and preschool programs. Miss Autumn, also known as Autumn Hutchinson, says children with special needs are just like other kids.
“Just because they're different on the outside doesn't mean that they're any different from you and me on the inside,” she said. “They still want that love. They still need that touch. They still want you to see them as a normal person.”
As for the nonprofit’s name, Weir-Enegren said it comes from the dictionary, which defines rainbows as “an arc light formed opposite the sun during or after a storm.”
“And these families had been through a terrible storm,” she said.
In addition to Rainbows, Weir-Enegren also has founded two other nonprofits: Roots and Wings, which helps advocate for children in foster care, and Pathways, a program for children growing up in homes where alcohol or drug abuse exists.
Along the way, she and her late husband, Phil, had two children of their own and adopted five others, some of them children with special needs from Rainbows.
Rainbows has had some difficult days, like a financial crisis in 2009 that caused it to file for bankruptcy protection. It restructured the organization and paid off all of its creditors.
And Weir-Enegren said the early years were tough, too. No one got paid the first two years, she said, and she worked a part-time job to support herself.
“On very bad days when I was younger, some days I would think it was too much to have given up,” she said.
“But today, from this perspective in my life, I would clearly say how very little to have given up to have been able to help so many people.”