Helen Brown Henderson


"Helen Henderson, almost single-handedly, created, cajoled, communicated, shepherded, nurtured, and developed services for the mentally ill/retarded in Iowa - literally, bringing the services from the dark ages to their present status as among the most enviable in the nation." - Michael V. Reagen, 1992

Helen Brown Henderson has spent much of her life as an advocate for the needs of mentally retarded persons. In the late 1940s, as the mother of a child born with special needs, she was faced with the reality that the avenues for assistance were limited. Through her questions and attempts to use the existing system, she developed an extensive network of supporters. In 1950, she began a campaign that developed 95 county chapters of the National Association for Retarded Children (ARC). In 1954, Henderson was elected the first president of the Black Hawk County chapter. She was also a founding member of the Iowa ARC, which sponsored the first three Special Olympics. From 1970 to 1978, she served as its executive director. She trained hundreds of Iowa parents in skills to advocate for community-based services to incorporate all citizens into community life. She also spent many hours volunteering her time to lobby the State Legislature on issues related to the education of children with disabilities. Henderson's vision eventually led to the development of the Area Education Agencies, designed as a resource to local school districts to enable them to provide K-12 education for disabled children in their home communities. She was the executive director of the Polk County Health Services from 1978 to 1983, where she continued her advocacy for mentally ill and substance abusing citizens of Polk County. She was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame in 1992.