Martin Turner says he got tired of watching his 30-year-old mildly retarded sister waste her skills and relentless energy on mind-numbing shop jobs that paid poorly and held no hope for the future.
"She used to go to a workshop on Old York Road, and for a whole week's work she would get $50," Mr. Turner said. "You could spend 10 years working there and you'd still be doing the same thing."
So, two years ago, when a friend at the data-processing company where he worked told Mr. Turner how he had trained his mentally handicapped brother in basic computer operating skills, Mr. Turner got an idea.
Now, each day brings the 36-year-old computer operations specialist closer to his goal of finding gainful employment in the computer world for his sister Maria and hundreds of others like her in the Baltimore area.
Mr. Turner is the president of the fledgling TSM Learning Center, a non-profit computer school scheduled to open next fall and teach people with mild physical and mental handicaps the technical skills required to land positions as entry-level computer operators.
Along with teaching its students basic computer languages and formats, the organizers of TSM also are planning to create a mock data library where students can learn how to transfer tapes, identify and access specific fields of data and load printers, among other tasks.
Mr. Turner says he and other TSM organizers are planning to meet with officials from Lake Clifton High School in the next month to discuss the possibility of setting up their classrooms and workshops at the school.
"If I got to start it in my front room, I will," Mr. Turner vowed. "That's how determined I am about this. Too much time has been invested."
The Governor's Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities hasn't heard of plans for the TSM Learning Center, but Mirian Vessels, its executive director, says such private initiatives are the wave of the future.
"We've beginning to realize that the days when the public sector could do everything are over," Ms. Vessels said.
If all goes according to plan, Mr. Turner said, the learning center could reduce Maryland welfare rolls, substantially increase incomes and health benefits for people with physical and mental handicaps and, perhaps most important, lift their self-esteem.
"I've seen it," Mr. Turner said. "All you have to do is praise them and they'll work like a horse for you. They are very loyal and dependable workers. What we've got to do after opening the school is to convince people to give them a chance."
Mr. Turner said the center has spent about $2,500 to pay for licenses and office supplies, and he doesn't think much more will be needed if donations keep coming in. He and other teachers at the school will work as volunteers.
He expects to keep the school afloat through corporate donations and private contributions.
"I'm not looking for money," he said. "My main thing is to go out and get a better life for these people. My personal interest is that a have a handicapped sister and I want to make this work for her."
Today, the TSM Learning Center is a shoestring operation run out of Mr. Turner's modest row house in East Baltimore. A public storage unit holds the hardware that will create the nerve center for the school when it opens. Nearly all of the equipment has been donated by companies such as Maryland Casualty Co. and Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Maryland, the two places where Mr. Turner splits his workweek.
There are physical and mental requirements for students, according to a "mission statement" -- a summary of the goals of the school. Those enrolled must be able to stand up for extended periods, climb up or down two to four steps and lift up to 40 pounds at a time.
Students also must be able to read print, communicate in English and obtain a certificate verifying that they have satisfactorily completed courses from a school whose mission is special education.
Mr. Turner stresses that when a student has graduated from the TSM Learning Center, a prospective employer doesn't not need to make any concessions in hiring him.
"They have a condition that they have to overcome, just like everyone else in the world has problems they have to overcome," he said. "When they leave the school, they will have overcome that problem, and all they need is a chance to prove it."