Program helps give disabled independence

Group home settings with aide offer residents opportunity to live, thrive

February 20, 2003|By Joni Guhne | Joni Guhne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When a group of Anne Arundel County residents started a nonprofit in the early 1970s to help those with mental and physical health problems, a contest was held to find the perfect name.

The winner was Bello Machre, the Gaelic phrase meaning "home of my heart."

"When you see how lives are really changed by people caring for people," said Bob Ireland, executive director of Bello Machre, "the name takes on real meaning."

Bello Machre's mission is to provide comfortable, secure homes for developmentally disabled persons and to give them a chance, while living with a trained residence manager, to experience life to its fullest.

The original Campus Living program continues at the organization's Freetown Road headquarters in Pasadena. The 6-acre campus has two office buildings and five group homes that house six residents apiece.

"We are continually working to get these people into the community by reducing the number of residents on campus," said Ireland. "Our goal is to help them become an active part of the community. In order for these opportunities to happen, you have to be in the community in the first place."

There are more than 22,000 developmentally disabled people living in Maryland. In Anne Arundel County alone, Ireland said, there are approximately 700 developmentally disabled children and adults on the waiting list for services.

The state budget proposed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. would increase aid to the developmentally disabled by $38.3 million, and includes $6.9 million in new funds to help those on the waiting list.

The proposed budget also contains $16 million to continue efforts to bring the lower salaries of private service providers in line with the higher salaries of workers at state-run institutions. The difference in pay is a major problem in hiring and retaining trained employees in private institutions, Ireland said.

Independent living

"The money would allow us to do more of what we've been doing," Ireland said.

When Bello Machre opened, it had one rental property (state law limits the number of disabled residents living independently to three per house). Today, the organization owns 50 homes throughout Anne Arundel County where 150 individuals, some as young as 11, live.

Take Cheryl Lee Downs.

"My life is very interesting," Downs said, "and I like it that way."

Despite a mental capacity below her age level, Downs, 34, works two days a week collating mail for an Arnold businesswoman. Other days she attends classes in basic computer skills, job readiness and sewing.

And though she has an artificial leg below her left knee, the result of a medical complication when she was 3, Downs bowls every Saturday, plays softball and swims with her housemates in the summer.

Downs has shared a home in the Severna Park community of Chartridge for four years with Betsy Lynch, 36, and Danielle Reely, 27 - two other Bello Machre clients - and resident manager Dottie Lowery.

Lowery, who previously worked as a vocational job developer for the city of Baltimore, plays a key role in the women's lives. She's been working 10-hour days for the past 10 years, spending the last four years at the Chartridge address.

The housemates tease their manager, calling her "Grandma," even though she's not old enough to be one.

Along with a sense of humor, they share a determination to lead independent lives. They help run the household by washing clothes, cooking meals and setting the table under Lowery's patient direction. Each Monday, they plan the week's menus.

Lowery makes sure the women are properly dressed each morning and sees them off to their Providence Center day programs. She's responsible for coordinating their health care, and takes them to doctor appointments.

An active role

Downs took another big step last year when she was appointed to the board of Bello Machre.

"For many years we've had someone we serve or a family member [of] people with disabilities on the board," said Ireland. "We thought Cheryl would benefit from the experience, but she's given the board members an education."

Thanks to Downs' input, she and her housemates now belong to the community pool.

Living independently has also given Downs a chance to be active in the community. In October, she was invited to join the Severna Park Kiwanis Club.

Since Tuesday night is Kiwanis Club night and also the night Downs is responsible for cooking dinner for her housemates, her supervisor suggested she switch her kitchen duties to another night. But Downs wouldn't have it.

"She's on top of the world when she goes to meetings, even though she has to come home from work, make dinner and get ready for the meeting," Lowery said.

When it was time for the club's fall apple sale, Downs helped out. And when the club had its Christmas fruitcake sale, Downs sold 40, more than any other member. Kiwanis Club members have been amazed at her accomplishments.

Downs has won over her neighbors, too.

"We find that rather than trying to educate the neighbors before the disabled residents arrive," said Ireland, "we use the `back fence' policy."

Once community residents meet their new neighbors, see how well the property is taken care of and realize that a disabled person poses no threat, they are accepted, he said. The women participated in a community yard sale last summer.

`Shining example'

Jim Stands, a Kiwanis member who gives Downs a ride to club meetings, said of Downs: "Cheryl is a shining example that physical and mental challenges can be overcome, allowing a person to contribute to the benefit of the community."

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