By Glenna Wortman-Obie, MA, Director of Marketing and Communication
Michael Kalous remembers his first Thanksgiving at Intermountain. “I walked into the dining room and there was so much food I couldn’t believe it—and we could have anything we wanted!” he says. It was called the Montana Deaconess Home then, and it was one of the only safe places he remembers from his childhood.
Michael and his three brothers, labeled as “unsupervised” by the State, were the children of a contentious and unhappy couple. Their mother had no money and no permanent place for them to live. The brothers lived in tents, cars, stayed with relatives—80 different places in all. Their father would track down the family and take the boys, later abandoning them again after a drinking binge. The day he dropped them off at the Montana Deaconess Home, no one knew where their mother was and there was concern for her safety.
“We prayed for her that Monday,” says Shirley Mitchum, the house mother who made room for the four boys in her already full unit at “the Home.” Her voice softens a little, “Their mother came on Thursday. She brought toys—a troll doll and toy horses.”
When the Kalous boys came to the Home, Michael was just 10. His older brothers, twins Kenny and David, were 11 and their little brother, Larry, only 7. “I liked it,” Michael says. “But my brothers didn’t like the rules or the chores.” For Michael, the Home meant calm, warmth and safety.
“We went from 8 boys to 12 in our unit,” Shirley notes. “But we couldn’t split up those boys.”
Christmas was magical, Michael remembers. The boys helped decorate the Christmas tree and each boy received 13 gifts that came from churches and donors all over the State. Everybody got roller skates, and lots of clothes. Michael smiles, thinking about skating out in front of the Home, and about the parachute man that was his favorite gift.
“I made waffles for breakfast,” Shirley says. “Those kids had never seen waffles.”
“We went to church and the church had a play,” Michael offers. “I was dressed up like a candle!”
Christmas Day also included a big dinner and a program at the Home. “I played ‘Somebody Snitched on Me’ on the piano,” Shirley says.
In addition to being house parents at the Home, Shirley and her husband, Elmer, were raising their own infant son as they co-parented the 12 boys in the unit. Michael remembers Elmer with great fondness. “We dreaded the sound of my dad coming home,” Michael says. “We tried not to be noticed because, to be noticed was to be targeted. Elmer was not like that.”
Practical and down to earth with a large helping of empathy, Elmer, who was a barber by trade, became a role model for Michael.
“My family was so broken,” Michael says. “It was scary and uncertain and what I remember is that Shirley and Elmer cared for each other and they cared for us.”
Michael’s childhood remained chaotic after he left the care of Shirley and Elmer and the Montana Deaconess Home, but his resiliency and perseverance helped him overcome his childhood trauma and create a good life for himself.
“Over the years, I tried to find Elmer and Shirley many times,” Michael says. “But I was never sure of the spelling of their name so I was always guessing.” (The couple’s name was Mutschlknaus which they changed to Mitchum.) Elmer passed away in 2004.
Fifty years later, Michael, now a college graduate, a therapist on Intermountain’s direct care team and a beloved husband and father himself, was speaking at the Methodist church in Butte. “In my speech, I used Shirley and Elmer as examples in my life,” Michael says. What he didn’t know is that he was speaking at Shirley’s church!
Shirley chimes in, “It was terrible weather that weekend so I didn’t go to church. Then one of my friends called me and said, ‘Someone from Intermountain spoke at church and he mentioned you!’”
She made a call and soon the two had made arrangements to meet. “I can’t put into words how I felt when I saw him,” Shirley says. “I’m so proud of the man he has become.”
“I would have known you anywhere,” Michael nods. “Your eyes have not changed.”
Michael and Shirley’s story is not unique. Past residents of Intermountain often stay in touch with or reach out to their former counselors and other staff and hold them up as role models for their lives. This article is dedicated to the Intermountain staff members, in recognition of all the holidays they have shared with children and families needing care and in appreciation for not only their work, but also their personal sacrifices and humanity in caring for children.