An 8-year-old stood before Rhonda Quarles yesterday, eyes wide with curiosity.
"How did you get in a wheelchair?" the girl asked, with the unvarnished candor of children.
Ms. Quarles, who was honored yesterday by the Turners Station Recreation Council as a role model for the community's children, gazed warmly back.
"I was sick, and when I got better I couldn't walk like I used to," she said. "But that hasn't stopped me from reaching my goals."
Not much has stopped Ms. Quarles, 35, a life-long Turners Station resident.
Stricken with multiple sclerosis when she was in her late teens, she lost much of her sight and has been confined to a wheelchair after losing strength in her legs.
Still, she says, she believes in helping people less fortunate than herself. And so she does.
"This is a person that with all her illness, has continued to go forward," said Peggy Patterson, program coordinator for the recreation council. "She does not pity herself, and she doesn't allow anyone else to pity her."
In the early 1980s, she worked as a teacher in the Head Start
program and was director of a day-care center in Turners Station, a low-income community southeast of Baltimore. Later, she took a job as a counselor and receptionist at a center for the handicapped in Dundalk.
But a layoff there in April cost her the job.
She has not sat idle, however, continuing her work toward a degree in human services at the College of Notre Dame.
"This may be the push I needed to get out to better things," she said.
Her perseverance caught the attention of others, and in September she was named Miss Wheelchair of Maryland, an award based on community service.
Yesterday, people she grew up with gathered inside the Turner Fleming Community Center to let her know that they find inspiration in her fortitude, and that they look to her as a role model for children.
"There has got to be something tangible for the children to hold on to," said Linwood N. Jackson, who coordinates a boxing program at the center. "We try to get to them before they get to the corners, before the fast cars capture their minds."
Ms. Quarles told the young people in the audience that if she could succeed without sight and without strength in her legs, that they could overcome poverty and the temptations of drugs and crime.
"Set a goal for yourself, make it a realistic one, and then strive for that goal," she said. "Don't let anything get in your way."