A Shining Victory For The Disabled

October 24, 1994|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

The workers descend on the Falls Road light rail station like an army platoon, walking briskly to position and then attacking.

Armed with brooms and garbage bags, the troop is good-natured but full of purpose.

The enemies are all around them: cigarette butts, discarded cups, graffiti on the walls.

"They keep the stations clean, a lot cleaner than a bus," marvels Andre Jones, a convenience store worker who commutes by light rail. "I never see a lot of trash on the cars, either."

Chalk up another quiet victory for the 42 mentally retarded men and women who keep the light rail trains and stations clean.

Since the Central Light Rail Line opened in May 1992, the Mass Transit Administration has contracted the Baltimore Association for Retarded Citizens Inc. to handle the landscaping and janitorial duties. The arrangement has kept costs down, officials said, and quality up.

"It's been wonderful for us," said Wayne W. Jubb, manager of light rail operations for the MTA. "At the height of the ice storms last winter with the snow and the icicles, they were out there cleaning."

A private, nonprofit agency, BARC places more than 400 people in jobs in the Baltimore area from cleaning state police headquarters in Pikesville to planting tulip bulbs each year at Sherwood Gardens in Guilford.

BARC workers also clean some Metro and Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) facilities. The MTA jobs are considered valuable entry-level opportunities for people who have never been given the chance to earn a paycheck before.

Most of the workers earn $4.25 per hour, slightly more if they are given more complicated jobs such as grass cutting. They wear orange safety vests over the green uniforms so they can be easily seen by light rail operators.

But for many, the money they earn allows them to live independently. In essence, taxpayers save twice -- less expensive cleanup crews for the MTA and less money spent supporting adults who might otherwise be wards of the state.

"Most janitorial work takes place at night when no one else is around, but this allows them some contact with the general public," said Jerry Bullinger, BARC's director of employment services. "They benefit from that."

The interaction helped Wondelia Morton, 29, who counselors considered withdrawn and shy. When she was transferred from a day care program into an MTA job, "She just blossomed," said Patricia L. Dreisch of BARC.

"She started to speak up for herself and became assertive," Ms. Dreisch said.

Miss Morton and her crew mates have only good things to say about their work. Thelma Scott, 43, hopes to graduate from picking up litter to a job at at a Friendly Ice Cream restaurant

"I like sweeping the sidewalk," said Miss Scott, whose paycheck pays the rent in a group home. "We pick up dirt and the leaves."

Enjoys his work

James Peddicord, 38, says he enjoys cutting grass best and always gets to work on time.

The workers are mildly to moderately retarded. Their intelligence quotients fall between 50 and 70 points. The work represents a challenge, a paycheck, independence, and ultimately provides them with greater self-esteem.

"It's saved money for riders and taxpayers," said C. Richard Remmey, the MTA's superintendent of facility maintenance. "And what we've gotten from BARC is a superior product."

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about the program. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300 protested the decision to contract labor. The union's 2,000 members include regular maintenance workers and cleaners.

Charles L. Pettus, union president, said the BARC workers are placed in too dangerous an environment. Any other MTA worker must be able to read and write and pass a safety course before being allowed to work on railroad tracks.

"We're not against the mentally retarded or jobs for the mentally retarded," Mr. Pettus said. "But this might be a matter of exploitation."

A light rail maintenance repairman who asked not to be identified said BARC employees working late at night at the maintenance yard walk among moving light rail cars without supervision.

Contention is disputed

"We're going to have a bad accident one of these days," the repairman said. "They are not being supervised."

MTA and BARC officials dispute that contention. BARC workers have never been in an accident, are more closely supervised than a typical MTA work crew, and are kept from more dangerous assignments, they said.

"We evaluate every person who is going to work close to trains," said Donald G. Watts, chief of BARC Landscape Service. "We don't take just anybody on light rail because of the safety factor."

Some of the strongest endorsements have come from passengers. Regular commuters have come to appreciate the maintenance workers, calling them by name or waving from a passing train.

Compliments overheard

"It seems like every time I take the light rail to the ballpark, I overhear some comment about how clean the cars are," said Stephen H. Morgan, BARC's executive director. "I have to restrain myself from standing up and making an announcement."

When BARC hired Wanda Hopkins to supervise a BARC crew last year, she wasn't sure what to expect. Now, her crew of five is determined to please her, scrubbing windows, emptying trash cans and weeding plant beds.

"We're a big, happy family," says Ms. Hopkins, whose workers also give her regular hugs.

"You treat them like you would like to be treated, and you'll be fine."

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