FOR THE FIRST time in his 55 years, Charles Davis is living on his own.
He has a small apartment decorated with his own artwork.
He has a job, a bank account and ''new teeth.''
And perhaps for the first time in his 55 years, he is making plans -- taking his neighbor out to dinner, learning to read, thinking about changing jobs.
Davis has mental retardation. Now he also has the support he needs to be independent, if not entirely self-sufficient.
Davis, who lives in Frederick, is one of more than 4,600 Maryland residents with developmental disabilities who are being helped to live more on their own through a system of coordinated services that meets individual needs. The service may be a job coach who helps a person with mental retardation find and learn a job; it may be someone to relieve the person's family; or it may be the installation of plumbing that allows a physically disabled man to stay in his own home.
In some cases, it is a list of resources available to families of people with disabilities or an indication of what to expect from school systems or a referral to a support group.
For Davis, the services were many -- securing benefits, arranging for a job at a sheltered workshop, finding him a home, teaching him how to use the bus system -- that led him out of his unhealthy living situation.
''He had hopped from relative to relative, just bounced from home to home,'' says Maria Harris, an individual support services coordinator for the Frederick County Association of Retarded Citizens. When Harris first met Davis by following up on a private referral, he was living with two brothers -- one mentally ill -- in a ramshackle house without plumbing outside Frederick.
He was walking a mile a day for water, had no way to get food and no obvious source of income, Harris says. But at that point he was not ready to move away from his brothers.
Then, one of Davis' brothers abruptly moved out and eviction was threatened. He began to see that he needed a new place to live. ''He needed everything all at once,'' says Harris, who worked more than 50 hours a month to get Davis settled.
That was in August.
Now, ''things are going very well. He's very pleased,'' adds Harris, who is spending less time with Davis these days.
''I like living by myself. I get to do things that I could not do before,'' Davis said during an interview in his three-room basement apartment.
''I do my own cooking. I do my own washing. I do my own grocery shopping. I bake cakes once in a while,'' says Davis, ticking off his recent accomplishments with pride. ''I feel great about myself.''
''Many of the people that we serve . . . get introduced to us because of a crisis,'' says Rosemary Rosensteel, support services director for the ARC in Frederick. ''After a crisis is resolved, we look at the situation so that it does not happen again.''
But services are not necessarily foisted upon people with mental retardation or their families. The impetus for much of what Harris has done for Davis, and for what service coordinators do around the state, ''comes from the people we work with,'' says Harris. This represents a big change in caring for people who have mental retardation and other disabilities.
Since moving people out of institutions to live, work and go to school in the community, there also has been a change in the decision-making philosophy.
''There is a lot less trying to fit a person into something,'' be it a group home, a sheltered workshop job or a certain recreational activity. And there is a lot more trying to help a person meet his own needs, says Nancy Kirchner, services coordination director for a division of the Frederick County ARC, which, through state grants, provides a variety of support services to about 4,000 people with disabilities in Baltimore and 10 counties in central and western Maryland.
Other counties coordinate services for people with disabilities through their health departments.
About 75 percent of the people served have mental retardation; the rest have other disabilities, such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy, she says.
The number of people served and the scope of the services are determined by community resources and the money available from the state's Developmental Disabilities Administration and other sources, says Kirchner.
(There are about 16,000 Maryland residents with developmental disabilities who are either receiving state-funded services or requesting them. Many other people with these disabilities are, however, cared for by their families and never request or receive services, so it is difficult to count them, says Michael Smull of the University of Maryland Department of Pediatrics, which has a contract with the state to provide services for the disabilities administration.)