Written-off Children Are Her Specialty

July 14, 1991|By Donna Weaver | Donna Weaver,Contributing writer

On her son Shawn's seventh birthday, Euva Stallings was afraid. But she was not worrying about preparing his birthday cake and wrapping his presents -- she was concerned for his future.

The Pasadena youth had a reading disability that was frustrating him at school, and hewas disrupting his second-grade class.

But county school officials didn't think the problem was severe enough to warrant more than the daily one-hour special education Shawnwas receiving.

But his parents knew better. They took him to Johns Hopkins Hospital for testing. Experts there discovered that Shawn had a severe reading disability and designed a curriculum especially for him.

But how could the Stallingses convince school officials toaccept the new curriculum? That's when they called Vi Cosgrove for help. President of the local Association for Children with Learning Disabilities, Cosgrove was well known as an advocate for mentally and physically disabled children.

Cosgrove and the Stallingses met withschool officials on Shawn's birthday. As usual, Cosgrove persuaded school officials to bend her way. The Hopkins-designed program became Shawn's new curriculum.

Now, Shawn is 15 and a track star at Chesapeake High School. Although he's reading at a second-grade level, he's receiving the special help he needs. Cosgrove and Shawn's parents are making sure of that.

"Vi has been a life-saver," Shawn's mothersays.

Cosgrove, 64, a 5-foot redhead, relishes the compliment. Fighting for the rights of disabled children has been her passion ever since she joined the ACLD, a support group for parents with handicapped children, in 1971. She has been their voice, pushing school officials to give the children the education they deserve.

She'll still do that, but not as president of the ACLD. After serving two seven-year stints as president, the Glen Burnie resident has stepped down forgood.

"I have another interest -- country music," she said. "I want to get more involved in country music. But I'll be an advocate forkids as long as I live. There are still mountains to climb."

Folks who care about special education wouldn't have it any other way.

"Her advocacy certainly has had a big impact on Anne Arundel County special education," said Irene Paonessa, county director of special education.

Former director Dr. Linda Jacobs had similar words of praise. "Vi has been critical to ACLD," she said. "For a long time she has been ACLD."

Both women listed a number of special education programs county officials created because of Vi's persistence. They include a summer program, children with communications disorders and emotionally disturbed children.

They also remember the times when Cosgrove testified on special education issues at Board of Education andCounty Council meetings.

"We can call on her at any time to get her support," Paonessa said.

But that doesn't mean Cosgrove and school officials always have agreed on issues.

"We certainly didn't agree all the time, but there was a mutual respect," Paonessa said.

"We've been able to work things out. She's certainly the kind of person that school systems need to be their conscience."

New ACLD president Pat Behringer added, "Sometimes, all she has to do is pick up the phone and things get done. She's a very outspoken person. She won't take 'no' for an answer. She challenges everything."

And just about anybody, it seems.

Cosgrove remembers the time she went up against former County Executive Robert Pascal. The executive was considering a proposal to cut lunch money for special education students forced to attend private schools outside the county because of their disabilities.

The two met in Pascal's Annapolis office. Cosgrove said she would complain to every newspaper in the county if he cut the lunch money.

"He glared at me," she recalled, "and I glared at him."

Pascal, she said, dropped his proposal.

The former county executive, now Gov. William Donald Schaefer's appointments secretary, chuckled when told of the story.

"I don't recall the incident," he said, "but if the lady says it, then I plead guilty."

Former schoolboard member Joan Cadden calls Cosgrove a "reference library on special education." But the woman some people have called a "5-foot fireball" certainly didn't come by her aggressiveness naturally.

"Back in high school I was considered a wallflower," she said. "Some peoplefind that hard to believe, but it's true."

She always has been a fighter. At birth, she weighed just 1 1/2 pounds. "Doctors didn't think I'd live until morning," Cosgrove said.

She made it, only to contract polio as a child, which left her with crippling arthritis.

Cosgrove was still a shy woman when her son, Louis, was born 25 yearsago. A few years later, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital told Cosgrove that young Louis, who had learning disabilities, "would never amount to anything," she recalled.

Cosgrove couldn't believe it. "Whatever his abilities were or his potential was, we've got to realize it. I felt I had a moral obligation to my son."

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