Billie Kramme has been a champion for people with developmental disabilities nearly her entire life.
It began when she was 19 and her youth group from Ohio came to Missouri to volunteer at church missions, including the Emmaus Homes, the nonprofit organization that serves adults with developmental disabilities which, in those days, included a residential campus in Marthasville.
More than 50 years later, that same drive continues today as she heads the Advocates for Community Choice, a nonprofit organization formed in 2015 with the goal of creating “an intentional community where people with and without disabilities choose to live together in a stable, supportive and faith-based neighborhood.”
In between, Kramme started a camp for people with developmental disabilities, she established the Friends of Emmaus group, she launched a health care consulting business and even provided assisted living and support services for people with developmental disabilities.
Looking back, Kramme credits that initial visit to the Emmaus Homes campus and the work she did there with not only inspiring her career as a nurse caring for people with developmental disabilities, but laying out a plan for her future. It ended up playing a role in who she married, how she raised her children and how she’s lived her life.
First Program Director at Emmaus
Kramme was on a three-week break from her year-round nursing school in Ohio when she came with her youth group to volunteer at Emmaus in 1968. The Rev. Jim Rinne was running the campus then, and he made an impression on her.
“I really connected with him,” she said. “He was an amazing, amazing person who really kind of changed the whole face of Emmaus.”
She returned to Ohio and went on to graduate from nursing school as a registered nurse. Then Emmaus contacted her about coming to work there as the program director. She didn’t hesitate to accept.
“And I have been here ever since,” said Kramme, noting she felt at home caring for the residents, looking out for them and helping them experience new things.
Prior to volunteering at Emmaus, Kramme’s only experience working with people who have disabilities was in eighth grade when she worked at a United Way camp with people who had cerebral palsy.
“That was part of the reason I wanted to come back to Emmaus, because in nursing school even people knew very little about it,” said Kramme. “This was in the 1970s. Even today in nursing, physicians and nurses are not that well-informed.”
Emmaus was home to about 85 adults (18 and older with some level of developmental intellectual disability) when Kramme began there. Her job was to plan activities and outings for them.
Up until then, the staff had only been providing custodial care.
“It was faith-based, and they were all such wonderful people,” said Kramme. “They were there just to serve the Lord by serving these people. A lot of them lived there, so it was like one big family.”
From Kramme’s perspective, her job as program director “was the best job in the world.”
“I was hired to provide that aspect of life for the residents that they’d never had before,” she said. “Many of them had never been to a restaurant, many had seldom ever even been off the campus. So we went bowling, we went to Cardinal ballgames, we took small groups to restaurants, and they were so unfamiliar with even understanding what a menu was and that they had a choice in what they could eat.
“How do you wash your hands in the public bathroom with the paper towel dispenser? Everything was just new to them.”
Rather than find the experience frustrating, Kramme relished it.
“It was exciting for me to be sharing this all with people who had never done anything like this,” she said. “And they were so appreciative. Yes, there were some who responded in a negative way, but most were so happy and so appreciative, so we did some major trips, like to the Botanical Garden and Grant’s Farm. Those were big deals.
“The other thing we did was take them to other churches out of state, churches that invited us for the choir to sing or something,” said Kramme, who played the guitar and piano to accompany the residents who had their own choir.
“We would place one or two residents in host homes. Today, when we look at all this stuff about how the government says, ‘You have to get these people out in the community; they can’t live on a campus.’ It (already had) started back then. They lived on a campus, but were out in the community every bit as much, if not more, as they are now.”
The work was meaningful to Kramme, not just as a nurse, but as a person of faith.
“Everybody deserves to have as full a life as possible, regardless of their abilities,” she said.
“As I look back over my life, the different things I have been involved in have all been because of Emmaus. I have a strong faith, and believe the Lord led me to this, because I would have never found Emmaus. I would never have searched for working with people of special needs. But it worked, and it was the right fit.
“It’s been a blessing to me, a blessing hopefully to other people, but then also the other things, as I share them, I just really believe we need to put our hand to whatever is before us, and there are so many needs out there.”
Drew Husband Into the Field
Back in the 1970s, Kramme started a camp for people with developmental disabilities, Camp Mo-Val, which is still operating today. It holds a special place in her heart, not just for the people it serves, but also because it’s where she met her husband, Dennis.
Kramme was in need of counselors to help, and Dennis responded to an advertisement.
“He had never worked with this population before, but it changed his career,” she said, noting he began working at Emmaus and went on to become an administrator.
The couple were married in 1978 in a wedding at St. Paul’s Church in Marthasville, with 75 residents from Emmaus in attendance.
“When you have a family event like a wedding, you want all of the important people in your life there, and that’s them,” said Kramme.
It was special to the residents too, and it was another way for the Krammes to share something with them as a way to grow their lives and experiences.
The couple purchased a home next door to the Emmaus campus in Marthasville, and have lived there ever since.
Kramme said she used to think she wanted to stay single, because it was the only way she saw herself being able to continue to work with people who have disabilities. Then she met Dennis.
“And my prayer to the Lord then was, ‘OK, if Dennis and I together can do twice as much as what I can do by myself, then it makes sense to me.’ And it has worked out that way,” she said.
Dennis also has made a career of working with people who have developmental disabilities. He currently handles community relations for ABiLITY, a nonprofit group that provides service programs for people with disabilities.
Other Work Opportunities
When Dennis began working at Emmaus, Billie found work in other areas that allowed her to work part time or have a flexible schedule that fit her family needs while she was raising her children. She was a nurse at Mercy in Washington for a while before taking a job at Cedarcrest Manor for 12 years.
“I did their CNA (certified nursing assistant) training and also was a state examiner who goes into various nursing homes to examine their CNAs to see if they’re qualified,” she said.
Although she appreciated working in elder care, Kramme found she had an enthusiasm for working as a direct caregiver.
“The caregivers, that’s where it happens,” she said. “They are often the lowest paid, and the work is hard. They work weekends, nights and holidays, and they’re the least appreciated.”
For seven years, Kramme worked at Dakota Boys Ranch for emotionally disturbed boys as the medical director. She oversaw their medication and worked closely with the psychiatrist and psychologist. It was a tough environment, but Kramme doesn’t shy away from a challenge. These kinds of jobs that other people may find too hard don’t scare her.
“I always feel like I have a lot to learn when I go in there,” she said. “But what I look at, and that’s what makes all the difference, is the individual and their heart. That’s where people with disabilities, some of them are very deformed and don’t look like what people would call pleasant, and it’s difficult for people, but I’ll tell you the truth, if you look at their heart, and the Rev. Rinne always said this, they are more like you than they are different. And they are. You start to get to know them.”
At one point, Kramme launched her own business, Health Consultant Services, working with people who have developmental disabilities. It was a leap of faith, in that the work was nontraditional and it cut off all of her income.
“But the Lord just provided everything we needed,” said Kramme. “We did not suffer in any way.”
‘How Can I Serve You?’
Music ministries and prayer ministries have long been a big part of Kramme’s life, and that continues today. For years she and Dennis have held a Bible study in their home every Thursday.
“That whole faith walk is huge, and I can’t talk about all this other stuff without that because it meshes exactly,” said Kramme, explaining that by faith walk she means her journey in her faith.
Kramme said she has attended various churches over the years, but her faith has never changed. And in her own personal walk with the Lord, He has become very real to her.
“I ask him every day, every morning, ‘What does this day hold?’ and ‘How can I serve you?’ ” she said. “My feeling is that every one of us has what I call a Book of Life, and really the Bible says that, a Book of Life that the Lord has handwritten in.
“This is what He has written, and I have the choice whether I am going to carry out what He wants me to or not. Everybody does. Even the criminal behind bars. So my heart’s desire is to do whatever it is He needs me to do while I’m here. That’s what all of this (list) is about,” she said, gesturing to a typed list of her life’s work and activities. “I’ve had this faith always, and when I was a teenager it became more real, I suppose.”
Most recently, that call to do what the Lord asks of them included opening their home to a couple of homeless teens, brothers ages 17 and 19, who have since become family. It wasn’t the first time over the years that the couple has welcomed strangers into their home. They have done it multiple times over the years to whoever needed a little help. Some stayed briefly, but others stayed longer.
They have served as foster parents, they have taken in a refugee from Ethiopia, and after the flood of 1993, they took in people who were displaced by the floodwater. They also “adopted” from afar a man who had some disabilities and had a very difficult home situation. He was out of school, and the Krammes found a placement for him in Branson.
So when they were presented with the local teen boys who were in need of a roof over their heads, the couple prayed about it and opened their door.
“It was nothing we anticipated or prepared for or thought we would do, it’s just as the need presented itself, we felt so blessed and we can do it,” said Kramme. “It was a wonderful thing. We just sort of feel like the Lord just dropped them down here for us, because again, we weren’t out there looking for this.”
Family Always a Priority
While the Krammes have spent their lives helping others, the couple always made their own children and grandchildren their top priority.
The couple have two daughters, Caroline and Mary, whom they adopted from South Korea in 1983.
“If we put our priorities in order it would be the Lord, our family, and whatever the Lord would have us to do,” said Kramme. “Our jobs have always been what we consider the Lord wanting us to do.
“I could have gone into a traditional nursing career . . . but that came at a time when our daughters were little, and it was too much of a time commitment,” she said.
Other jobs would have brought more career success and financial success, but that was never their priority.
Their two daughters went on to have four sons, and the Krammes enjoy spending time with them. That often includes time outdoors hiking, floating the rivers, camping, bicycling and horseback riding.
‘Adults With Disabilities Should Have a Choice’
The work that Kramme is doing today as president of Advocates for Community Choice (ACC) is motivated by her belief that adults with disabilities should have a choice in where they live.
Some might prefer living in a group home in a city environment, while others might thrive and feel more comfortable on a campus, similar to what the Emmaus Homes offered before it closed its campus.
The ACC is actively looking for property in a more rural setting where it can establish a neighborhood where adults with disabilities are welcome and comfortable.
“The goal is to create a community where people who have developmental disabilities are not shunned by their neighbors and also a place where the parents and families of these adults do not have to worry about what would happen to them if they are not around to look out for them,” said Kramme.
“Everyone should have a right to choose where they live. If they want to live in a neighborhood, they should have that choice. If they want to live on a campus where they feel protected and secure, they should have a choice of that too.”
The ACC already has a name for the neighborhood it envisions — Bethel Community.
“Our intention is that it be integrated for people with disabilities and people without disabilities,” said Kramme. “The people who come, regardless of whether or not they have disabilities, they come wanting to be part of this kind of community. So at the get-go it’s supportive, it’s safer, and there will be people who will truly thrive.
“We believe that a setting sets the tone for a person’s sense of self-worth and pride,” Kramme added. “Bethel Community will have people living together from all walks of life, with all different abilities. Such a setting will encourage and allow personal freedom and choice in a supportive environment while continuing to be involved in the larger community.”
Kramme and other members of the ACC board have traveled to Jefferson City and Washington, D.C., to talk with legislators on behalf of adults with disabilities about the barriers that hinder the type of community they envision. And they have made progress. Legislators removed some of the limitations that had been placed on housing choices for adults with disabilities.
Looking ahead, Kramme is hopeful about the future, especially with ACC. Plans are moving forward and one organization has offered a property that would be ideal for the Bethel Community.
Although nothing has been finalized yet, she has faith that the right situation will emerge.
For 50 years now, Kramme has been working with people who have developmental disabilities.
“I won’t stop advocating for them,” she said, with a smile.