ARC director leaves indelible mark Retiree was catalyst for housing projects

March 01, 1998|By Melissa Corley | Melissa Corley,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Shirley Carson scoots her glasses back and forth across the table while she describes the horrors she witnessed at Rosewood Center, a psychiatric institution in Owings Mills, in 1974.

"It was horrible. It was just awful," she said, remembering how 100 female patients in nothing but hospital gowns were crowded into one room where they lay on benches or the floor. "People were sent there and didn't ever leave."

She saw a similar situation at the Crownsville Hospital Center.

"People slithered around the floor," she recalled. "It was like a dungeon."

"This probably increased my commitment because my daughter was never going to go there ever."

Carson's daughter Anne, 36, was born mentally retarded. This led to Carson's spending some 30 years working with the Anne Arundel County Association for Retarded Citizens, which operates residential programs, camps, bowling leagues and other support services for the mentally retarded.

Last month, at age 62, she retired as executive director of the Anne Arundel County ARC branch. Co-workers described her as the backbone of the group. She says she is grateful to the ARC for helping her discover in her daughter the ability to learn skills Carson thought she never would.

"It was the most wonderful thing in the world to find out she could actually do things at 4 years old," she said. "It was very uplifting."

Executive directors from ARC branches across the state are taking turns serving in Carson's place, said Gerald Adams, one of the interim directors. The organization has started a nationwide search for a permanent replacement, and Adams said leaders hope to fill the position by May.

The Carsons moved to Annapolis from State College, Pa., 33 years ago, looking for good special education for Anne. Carson became involved with the Anne Arundel branch of ARC through her daughter's school, Sunny Meadows, in Crownsville. But she said she never envisioned herself becoming executive director.

She started as secretary, then became chairwoman of the residential committee, which advocates for housing for the mentally disabled.

When she was elected executive director in the early 1980s, Carson continued to focus on establishing such housing. She was not paid as executive director until 1989, however.

Her daughter has benefited from the largest project Carson worked on and the one she is most proud of -- Langton Green, a residential facility on Arundel on the Bay Road, south of Annapolis.

"I am a strong proponent of families helping their grown-up children to move out of the family home," she said. Her daughter comes home at least once a week and calls her every day, but over the past couple of years, Anne has become very content at Langton Green, Carson said. Anne lives with a counselor and another mentally retarded woman about her age.

Langton Green's 24 apartments were finished in 1984. Carson worked with fellow ARC officer Harry Sylce to obtain funding for the facility from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the state Developmental Disabilities Administration. They also wrote grant proposals, dealt with legislators and quickly found people to live there so ARC would have the rent to cover the mortgage payments.

"[Carson] and Harry Sylce were the movers and shakers, and without them it never would have been built," said fellow ARC member Audrey Miller, the mother of two mentally retarded children. "It was a really big contribution."

"She was always willing to do the most minor job if help was needed," said fellow ARC volunteer and parent Angela Dey.

"We had to scrub houses that were being converted into homes for the retarded," Miller said. "We had to go in and paint and fix them up. It was really dirty labor which you really forget about over the years, but the bottom line is you want your child in a residential facility and you'll do whatever it takes for them."

Bello Machre, a network of houses throughout Freetown, was another of Carson's projects. She helped to adapt the program so that it could supply care to the severely mentally retarded.

Carson also dedicated time to developing respite care programs -- providing care for mentally retarded children when parents cannot.

"I have really been involved in creating things that we needed when our family was young -- that we desperately needed but did not have," she said.

This effort has proved invaluable to local parents of retarded children.

The ARC Respite House in Linthicum is one example. It was built in 1975 as a group home for the mentally disabled and was established as the respite house in 1990.

"It's for parents that have our children at home, and we want to have a break or a weekend off or in case of emergency," said Carl Szuba, ARC vice president. "We did not have any place for our child in case of emergency."

Carson said she remembers being frantic when baby sitters would cancel at the last minute. Luckily, her son, Scott, now 39, stepped in and offered to help watch his little sister.

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