Humming the refrain of an old Elvis hit under her breath, Marcie carefully maneuvered her wheelchair toward the stereo and proudly showed off her record collection.
When she first moved into the cozy ranch home in Crownsville last month, Marcie hardly ever opened her mouth. She rarely talked, let alone sang.
Living among seniors in a nursing home had taught the 30-year-old to keep her secrets and cope on her own.
But within a few days of meeting Cozette, her bubbly roommate in the group home for mentally handicapped adults -- a third occupant is yet to arrive -- Marcie started coming out of her shell.
Brought together by Bello Machre Inc., a private, non-profit Glen Burnie agency, Marcie and Cozette became fast friends.
The two are almost inseparable now. They listen to Bobby Brown records and whisper about cute men late into the night. They share jokes during work at Opportunity Builders Inc., a Glen Burnie program that employs mentally handicapped adults. And they spend the evenings watching television, eating dinner and relaxing in their new home.
"It's pretty nice right now," says 26-year-old Cozette. "After I left home, I had the hardest time. I didn't know when I'd be in a place like this again."
After her mother died, Cozette spent two years at Rosewood, a state institution in Baltimore County for the mentally and physically disabled, before she had a chance to move into the "alternative living arrangement" run by Bello Machre. Her new home is one of three in the county, valued at about $150,000 each, bought recently with low-interest loans from the state Department of Housing and Community Development.
The state set up the $4 million loan program in 1986 to give non-profit agencies like Bello Machre the chance to open homes for the mentally and physically handicapped, the elderly and the homeless, said program director Vance Morris.
Since state health officials decided to scale down Rosewood a few years ago, increasing numbers of people have been deinstitutionalized and placed in group homes across the state. Gov. William Donald Schaefer, while promising to keep Rosewood open, has called for reducing the number of clients to between 300 and 350 in the next years, said Allan Radinsky, director of the state institution.
Cozette is one of 115 people placed in group homes or residential programs since July 1989. Only 475 people still are living in Rosewood now.
"The biggest advantage to a (group home) is that it improves their quality of life," said Cheryl A. Moore, assistant director of Bello Machre.
"They get a lot more interaction with people in the community. And they have many more opportunities to become independent."
Program supervisors usually select groups of three similarly handicapped adults to live together with a full-time house counselor, she said. Bello Machre owns most of its 35 group homes, but still rents a few houses. The 18-year-old agency also runs a residential program in Glen Burnie for more profoundly retarded adults and some teen-agers.
Bello Machre opened its first group home in 1981, when the national movement to deinstitutionalize mentally handicapped adults began gaining momentum. Mental health advocates were calling at the time for mainstreaming disabled adults to give them "a chance to live in a normal setting," recalled Geoffrey Hall, Bello Machre's director of development.
"There was a sense that if you give people a normal setting and expect and help them to do the normal things in life, then that's going to happen," he said.
Life could not be much more ordinary for Cozette and Marcie these days.
They eat supper together in the kitchen instead of waiting to be served in a crowded dining room. They listen to records and giggle together in their bedroom instead of sleeping in a dormitory. They are learning basic skills, like dialing the telephone and washing dishes, instead of relying on others for help.
"This job is totally different," said their house counselor, Patricia McNeil, who worked at Rosewood for 23 years before joining Bello Machre two years ago.
The 42-year-old social worker said she became accustomed to outbursts and even physical violence -- "people used to get knocked down and kicked" --while working in Rosewood's behavior management program.
"Nothing like that happens here," she said. "I feel like this is a real home. We went to see the movie 'Pretty Woman,' and the girls got a real kick out of it. You just can't do that kind of thing in a big (institution)."
Cozette and Marcie still are waiting for their third roommate, who also will come from Rosewood. Moore said she hopes to repeat their success story while placing even more people in group homes with the downgrading of Rosewood in the next year.
Bello Machre plans to apply for additional state loans to buy houses, since that gives the group more leeway in outfitting them with ramps and special bathrooms for the handicapped.
"It just seems to make more sense to apply the money to the mortgage instead of rent," she said. "And it gives our clients a real sense of security to live in their own home and know they can stay as long as they want."