Lester Carter. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

It was the late 1960s and Lester Carter was about to “age out” of the Hissom Memorial Center in Sand Springs.

Lester is developmentally challenged. He’s also active and capable. And he was about to have nowhere to go.

Aging out of Hissom left his mother with few options. She was single and worked all day to support her children, so it was likely that 18-year-old Lester would either end up staying with his grandparents during the day, or be sent where many young adults with disabilities went — a nursing home.

That’s when an “angel” stepped in.

“It was like, ‘Here, just take him home,’” Lester’s sister Connie Deen said of the time when Lester had aged out of Hissom. Deen said their mother was afraid the process would mean Lester would be on his own.

“Home? What’s he going to do at home? She was almost panicked.”

From out of nowhere came Helen Gates. Her son, Ronnie Gates, was born with Down syndrome, and in 1963 she had founded Gatesway, an organization that offered developmentally challenged adults a place to go and things to do.

Kay Swisher, left, Lester Carter, middle,and Connie Deen. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Lester was one of the first Gatesway clients. When the Gatesway Foundation — now a multi-million dollar operation in Broken Arrow with hundreds of employees and hundreds of clients — was just a humble south Tulsa farmhouse, Lester was there.

He remembers the old days — days spent with Mrs. Gates, Ronnie, and some of the other original clients. He remembers their names, too. Ask him about his memories and he talks about Mrs. Gates’ “gray hair,” and the “trouble” he and Ronnie and some of the other clients would get into.

When Gatesway expanded, Lester stayed with the agency. For 50 years he was there, talking about bowling, or the World War II biplanes he loves (his father worked on planes during the war,) and bringing light to everyone he encountered.

In 2017 that ended. Lester, who had just celebrated 50 years with Gatesway, was let go as a client. As mismanagement and budget cuts at Gatesway saw the once-proud organization begin to struggle, it underwent a purge of some of the clients it deemed “most unprofitable.”

Meeting minutes from a Gatesway Foundation Board of Directors meeting from Aug. 17, 2017, discuss the implementation of service termination for “the sixteen most unprofitable (Non-Group Home) Clients.” Lester Carter was one of those “most unprofitable” clients.

It was determined that Lester, 50 years at Hissom and all, was a “net loss,” according to company documents obtained by The Frontier.

Records obtained by The Frontier include the minutes of an Aug. 17, 2017, Board of Directors meeting where former board president Matt Coughlin listed a variety of ways to save money, including lowering employee pay, implementing a hiring freeze and “notifying the sixteen most unprofitable NGH (Non Group Home) Clients that Gatesway were terminating service.”

Deen said they received a letter from Gatesway about a month later announcing they were letting Lester go.

A Board of Trustees “transformation status report” from late 2017 listed Lester and 12 other clients under a financial impact document that showed the organization could save about $200,000 — or avoid that much “net loss” — by cutting those clients loose.

Lester, they determined, cost them about $10,000 a year.

And just like that, Lester was gone. The man dubbed “High Flying Lester Carter” in a promotional Gatesway article that detailed his trip to a local airport to look at fighter jets up close had become a cost-cutting casualty.

Deen said she and her sister attempted to talk to Gatesway to ask why there was such an urgency to remove Lester from care, but the answers were always evasive.

“It was like he didn’t generate enough income for Gatesway,” Deen said. “They could take on other clients that would generate more income, but I never understood that. It didn’t make any sense.”

She said Gatesway was helpful in connecting Lester to new services, a requirement the agency had to fulfill before cutting him loose. But time always seemed to be of the essence.

“They were anxious to get rid of us,” Deen said.

She had noticed financial trouble brewing for a while before the letter letting Lester go arrived in the mail last fall. What once had been buoyant Christmas parties where clients would receive gifts and there would be an air of fun and merriment had dwindled to “a cookie and a juice box and a free DJ.”

Special Olympics trips that Lester had long been apart of — trips to Chicago for national events and even international excursions — fell by the wayside.

Lester Carter. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

“(The local teams) would qualify and then there just wouldn’t be any money for staff or transportation,” Deen said. “It was hard to get anyone to do the Special Olympics teams, that’s a huge thing … it was just a little bit here, a little bit there.

“It just felt like things were going in the wrong direction.”

Nevertheless, Lester is lucky. His sisters, who’ve dubbed themselves “The Carter girls,” bought their brother a small east Tulsa home he’s decorated with model planes and framed pictures of old fighter jets.

Lester lives there by himself with minimal supervision. He’s still used to living in small quarters, so he tends to take most of his belongings into his bedroom. In the mornings, someone picks him up and takes him to work where he’s “a rock star” his sisters said.

“He worries about being late but seriously if he was ever late for work they wouldn’t mind, they would just be worried,” Deen said.

As for Gatesway, Deen said she would like to see it return to its former prominence.

The Gatesway Foundation campus, 217 E College Street, in Broken Arrow. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

“It was such an amazing agency …. Mrs. Gates built it from the ground up and worked so hard,” Deen said.

“It was a premiere agency and it was just a fun place for them to be, and so I would love to see it get back to some sort of resemblance of that … I would just love to see it not go under, and to get built back up.”

As for Lester, he has taken it all in stride. Soon to be 71 years old, he barely looks a day over 50. His secret, Deen said, is that he doesn’t stress. He has his family, he has his home and he still has the pictures from that day at the airfield with the fighter jets.