In certain circles in Virginia, people refer to “Ray and Jessica” as others might reference “Beyoncé and Jay-Z” — everyone just knows who you’re talking about.
Ray and Jessica Burmester have served as activists and civic volunteers in the intellectual disability and mental health communities for more than 25 years.
The couple was initially just looking for services for their son when they got involved with a new organization providing respite care for families with children with disabilities in the early 1980s.
That first step, however, led to a decades-long public service career, with the couple holding dozens of appointed positions on boards and commissions as well as leadership roles in advocacy organizations.
“They have made a huge difference in the lives of people with disabilities,” said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bulova (D).
They retired together from the Department of the Navy in 1995, and now the Burmesters are both taking a step back from their public service roles.
“Our marriage is very much a partnership,” Ray said. “Jessica and I do virtually everything together.”
The Burmesters have been tireless advocates for people with disabilities and mental-health needs at the local and state levels. County leaders recognized their service last week, declaring Jan. 14 “Jessica and Raymond Burmester Day.”
Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock) said it is striking how many people have learned from and been touched by the work of the Burmesters.
“We are a great county because we have great people who give of their time and expertise … there is no greater example of that than the Burmesters,” Cook said.
In the late 1980s, Ray Burmester became chairman of the Hartwood Foundation, a nonprofit offering respite care for families with intellectually disabled children that was working to develop some of the first group homes in the area.
As parents of a child with significant intellectual disabilities, the Burmesters could have left it at that, said Mary Ann Bergeron, executive director of the Virginia Association of Community Services Boards.
“They could have been a family that just made sure that their son was taken care of, but they went so far beyond that,” she said. “The impact that they had in Virginia goes far beyond Fairfax County.”
Through the Hartwood Foundation, the Burmesters became acquainted with the role of the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board. CSBs are state-mandated local agencies that provide services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental health care and substance abuse treatment.
Ray applied when the Braddock District seat on the local CSB opened up in 1989, and Bulova, then the Braddock District supervisor, appointed him.
That same year, Jessica was busy forming a grass-roots organization for parents of children with disabilities, thumbing through paper poll books to determine which magesterial district each of the hundreds of families lived in and taking them to talk to their elected representatives.
“Each parent would just talk about their son or daughter and what that person needed,” Jessica said. “These people wouldn’t have gone to their supervisor on their own.”
At the time, there weren’t many community-based services for adults with intellectual disabilities, meaning that, after completing public school, families had to either figure out a way to care for their children at home or place them at the Northern Virginia Training Center.
The parents were successful in convincing the Board of Supervisors to begin investing local dollars in the Fairfax-Falls Church CSB to help provide respite care for families, but the Burmesters quickly realized there were limits on what the county could do.
“We realized that, as generous and benevolent as the local government was, that we really should be focused on Richmond,” Ray said.
Part of their advocacy on the state level involved forming the Coalition for Virginians with Mental Disabilities, which brought together the mental health and intellectual disabilities communities to work together, rather than continuing to fight over the same money.
Ray served as a co-chair of the coalition for years. “It was his leadership and his guidance that kept everyone together,” Bergeron said.
While colleagues like Bergeron give the Burmesters immense credit for their role in the immense changes in Virginia’s systems of care over the last 25 years, the couple sees their greatest impact in bringing groups together.
“Teaching people to advocate, I think, has been the best thing we have done,” Jessica said. “One person isn’t going to make any change. You have to have a lot of people to make a change.”