The tears that used to stain 21-year-old Denise Firda's face are missing today, replaced by a shy smile that brightens at the mention of her job.
Two years ago, the idea of getting a job would have seemed ludicrous for the severely handicapped students inside the tan brick walls of Marley Glen school in Glen Burnie.
But Denise's limitations, due to autism, retardation, scoliosis, muscle spasms and illiteracy, didn't prevent her from landing a job in the laundry room at the Maryland Manor Convalescent Center, only a mile from the school.
Her smile is Ric Chesek's reward. As a job coach, he is among the foot soldiers carrying out Gov. William Donald Schaefer's plan to ease the transition from education to employment for the handicapped.
Until 1989, the county would have stopped caring for Denise in June, because she is now 21. For her, graduation would have meant a future in a day-care program or sheltered work setting.
That didn't sit well with Chesek, who had been able to find jobs only for students able to read. Denise is unable to read her name on the time card she must punch daily, but she has no problem repeating the steps to fold clothes in the laundry room.
"Denise is amongthe first severely handicapped students in job placement," Chesek says. "She is a trailblazer. The goal is to find enough options so thatno one will have to go to medical day care. As it looks now, we willmeet that goal."
The new push to find employment for the severelyhandicapped has long been Chesek's personal philosophy. Now he has license to implement it.
The 31-year-old beams like a proud father as he looks at the pictures of students on his office wall -- students in training for jobs that defy the diagnoses of doctors and some educators.
But Chesek's job isn't over when one of his students is placed. He has to make sure employers can handle the adjustment. The state lends a hand, too: the Targeted Job Tax Credit allows employers to take 80 percent of the salary for each student as a tax credit.
Chesek vows to keep pushing. "Once parents see that they can expand their dreams for their children," he says, "it's hard to go back.
"In 1952, people had to fight to get integrated schools. This battle is for handicapped people to have the right to work alongside their non-handicapped peers. We've found that both learn in this situation."
Of the 12 students graduating this June, he has found jobs for 10. The other two students will not be placed, at the request of their parents.
"Good Lord willing and the river don't rise, they'll havejobs," Chesek says.
The dark-haired man with the boyish face seated at the counter of Denny's Restaurant on Ritchie Highway for several hours each Wednesday is Chesek. He is there to monitor the progressof one of his students.
He also sometimes drives students to their work.
"I'm fortunate to have this kind of job," he says with a smile. "I've not had to give parents bad news. These students are earning benefits and opening checking accounts for the first time."
Denise has almost mastered her job of folding sheets, towels, pillow cases and gowns for nursing home residents. Chesek is at her side each Monday, following her as she punches in, turns in her lunch voucher and begins work. He also encourages Denise to improve her social skills during lunch with her co-workers.
His goal is gradually to increase her hours and hand the transportation chore over to her mother, Camille Firda. Between trips to check on Denise, he meets with her mother.
"I never thought she would be able to get a job," Mrs. Firda says. "She was diagnosed as not being able to work. I'm anxious to see her working for myself. I feel like she's doing well. I'm real proud."
Denise's mother has nothing but praise for Chesek.
"Before there was no possibility of her getting a job. He's been the catalystfor her. He's helped her a lot."
During a short break back at Marley Glen, Chesek pulls Scott Wegge out of class for more computer training. The job coach has a data-entry job lined up for his 19-year-old charge.
Scott is among the less-severely disabled students who split their time between Marley Glen and Dundalk Community College in Baltimore County. With him, Chesek has to be concerned with insuranceand upward mobility once placed in a job.
Chesek wheels out a computer workstation and the pair begin working on an Appleworks computer program.
Later, after a quick trip to a nearby Giant grocery store, it is time to pick up Denise and return her to school.
He can barely keep up with her as she races back to the car.
"Did you have a good day, Denise?" he asks. She flashes her slight smile, and he knows that everything is OK -- there are no tears.
Denise is blazing a trail Chesek hopes all 125 students at Marley Glen will be able to follow. But before that happens, he needs to improve coordination between the schools and county agencies, like the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
"We were two systems working parallel that never met," Chesek says.