Kennedy Krieger receives key gift $45 million may help launch network for disabled children

'This is a springboard'

October 28, 1998|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

Bernard Marcus, chairman of the Home Depot, announced yesterday that he will give Baltimore's Kennedy Krieger Institute $45 million, seed money that may eventually launch a national network of similar centers for the developmentally disabled.

Motivated by concern for this long-neglected group, Marcus sees Kennedy Krieger as a model to replicate around the country, where help is often fragmented and inadequate. His donation is among the largest of individual gifts ever for people with such disabilities as cerebral palsy, autism and mental retardation.

Kennedy Krieger will merge with the Marcus Institute, an Atlanta-based facility that Marcus set up in 1990. Together, the centers -- which will retain their separate identities -- will aim to take the issue of developmental disabilities to a new level, to heighten awareness and push for more medical, educational and social services nationwide.

"This is a springboard," said Marcus, 68, one of the country's most successful CEOs. He said he discovered the issue as he watched an employee struggle over 12 years, trying unsuccessfully to get the appropriate care for a brain-damaged son.

"I watched. It was a nightmare. Everywhere she turned, it was a blank wall," said Marcus, who was at Kennedy Krieger for yesterday's announcement. "What this does to families is a horror story. Everybody suffers."

Marcus and his wife, Billi, researched many programs around the country before finding Kennedy Krieger several years ago. They designed the Atlanta center -- and donated more than $25 million to it -- based on the Baltimore center, which abuts Johns Hopkins Hospital and was founded 61 years ago as the first facility in the country for the treatment of cerebral palsy. Today, Kennedy Krieger offers a comprehensive array of services for children with brain disorders and their families.

About $10 million of the new gift is earmarked for the Marcus Center, specifically to develop a behavior management unit like the one at Kennedy Krieger that has proved successful in reducing self-injurious acts such as biting and hitting.

Nationally, experts say about 160,000 children with developmental disabilities have behavior problems. At Kennedy Krieger, that is one of the biggest issues doctors face with disabled children.

Yesterday, Marcus watched a class where a staff member struggled to keep an 11-year-old autistic boy on track. He bit his hands, slapped his cheeks and yelled. Managing these and other socially disruptive behaviors is key to getting disabled people into regular schools, jobs and, someday, homes of their own.

In Atlanta, there is a pressing need for a similar clinic, said Dr. J. Devn Cornish, chairman of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine, who also works at the Marcus Center. "This is absolutely groundbreaking."

Just as families have relocated to Baltimore to have ready access to Kennedy Krieger, many -- including Home Depot employees -- have moved to Atlanta so they could get services from the Marcus Center. The goal of the donation, most of which will go to a new, unnamed foundation affiliated with Kennedy Krieger, is that someday, no family would have to move.

Initially, organizers will evaluate what's available around the country, see whether there is communication among providers and make sure the public knows about the services. Marcus and Dr. Gary Goldstein, Kennedy Krieger's president, envision a coordinated range of community services, including medical care, special education and job training for adults.

Said Marcus: "This is an organization that is going to take them by the hand and walk them through life."

Some experts said that similar centers are already in place in every state and that advocacy groups have been pushing for help for years. In the face of a $25 billion a year price tag for services for the disabled, they say the Marcus donation can't make a significant national difference.

But families and advocates said they welcome the dollars and visibility that the co-founder of a chain such as Home Depot brings to the table. And Marcus noted that his gift is seed money, intended to encourage similar donations.

"We hope this is the beginning of a national endowment," said Henry Rosenberg, chairman of Kennedy Krieger's board of directors and chairman and CEO of Crown Central Petroleum.

What is clear is the need.

Experts estimate that about 2 million to 3 million children and adults with these disorders nationwide will need help for their entire lives. Only about 700,000 of them are getting help now.

"The growth of these services is desperately needed in virtually every state," said David Braddock, head of the Department of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he analyzes state-by-state efforts.

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