At home in world of work

Employees: As an organization helping them marks its 50th anniversary, mentally retarded workers branch out to new jobs.

May 05, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Morning rush hour brings the troublemaker and the sweetheart, the flirtatious and the shy to the Mount Washington light rail station. Mentally disabled all, they move among the Civics and Jeeps and Camrys that fill the parking lot, cleaning up after a world that has gone to work.

For the first time in their lives, this group of mentally retarded people has joined that world -- taking on jobs that even some of their parents and advocates never thought they could handle.

Traditionally, retarded workers did their jobs out of sight, in large warehouses designed for easy containment and monotonous tasks. But their jobs are branching out to places such as hotels and train stations -- public spaces where they encounter the rest of the world.

"The misconception is that mentally retarded people only want to do boring, repetitive jobs," said Jerry Bullinger, director of employment services for the Baltimore Association for Retarded Citizens Inc., which has a contract with the state Mass Transit Administration to clean light rail stations. "People with mental retardation want challenges the same way you and I want a challenge."

Sandra Benton, a 45-year-old employee who is quick to hug and smile, gushes about her work. "I like my job," she says. "I'm not leaving. I got my own money. I like my uniform clean. I like my everything."

Benton can recite the rules of her work: "No hanky-panky. No drinking on the job." She uses her earnings to pay for lunches, bowling and trips to Ocean City.

Then there is her co-worker Ulysses Dixon, 40, a lanky, bent-over man with a flair for the dramatic, who articulates the feelings of workers everywhere: "Sometimes I like it. Sometimes I don't."

Since it began in 1985, the ranks of BARC's supported employment program have swelled to 450 people working at 277 sites in and around Baltimore.

As it marks its 50th anniversary this month, BARC, which claims to be the largest nonprofit provider for the mentally handicapped in Maryland, is planning to dramatically expand its capacity to find employment for clients.

The organization recently broke ground on a 28,250-square-foot employment center, in Seton Industrial Park in Northwest Baltimore, that will create a central location for the janitorial and landscape crews and allow more room for them to work.

The association also hopes the presence of the center will attract more contracts for its crews. Over the next seven years, Bullinger expects the program to nearly double.

"Supported employment" means that workers generally have supervisors and "job coaches" on site, making sure they practice jobs sufficiently to compete in the world of private employment.

In practical terms, sometimes it means that supervisor Carla Green stands by proudly at a distance at the light rail stops, while Benton spots all the cigarette butts on her own and plucks them up.

Other times, it means that when Dixon uses the leaf blower, Green holds onto it with him -- literally helping him do the job.

The wages are small -- from a low that is well below minimum wage to a high of more than $7 an hour, depending on the work and the number of people doing it. Earnings are low because the workers often must operate in teams, splitting a job usually performed by one person.

That's the case at the Sheraton Baltimore North Hotel in Towson, where a team of as many as 10 clients work on third-floor rooms.

Woodrow Harvey specializes in bathroom floors. Thelma Maniloff makes beds, pulling hospital corners tight. Natalie McElveen does only toilets and tubs, and when she's finished she folds towels precisely on the rack above.

Their progress can seem slow, but Funmi Williams, the hotel's director of housekeeping, says the BARC workers are some of her best.

"They're very dependable -- more dependable than my people," she says. "Monday to Friday, I know I'm going to have coverage on the third floor."

The mentally retarded workers have learned another element of the work world -- how to negotiate.

Yesterday, supervisor Green offered Dixon, a frequent mischief-maker, a coveted job at the Falls Road light rail station -- using the leaf blower.

At first, Dixon seemed honored. He nodded, slowly. Then he gestured to Green.

"Let me ask you something," he said. "You too," he said to Donna Hokemeyer, BARC's program coordinator for landscaping.

The two drew closer.

Asked Dixon: "I'm gonna get more money in my check?"

BARC will begin a series of 50th anniversary events tomorrow with a reception from 5: 30 p.m. to 7: 30 p.m. at Sherwood Gardens in Guilford, where BARC landscaping workers plant more than 80,000 tulips each year.

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