The state's special education department helps people like Michael Argentino. And for 16 years, he has been helping the agency.

November 10, 2005|By LIZ BOWIE ... | LIZ BOWIE ...,SUN REPORTER

Michael Argentino is determined to keep the particulars of his life in order. In the morning, he makes breakfast and tidies the kitchen. He brushes his teeth and then cleans the sink. He leaves the house in spotless clothes.

His proclivity for neatness hasn't always made keeping a job easy, his mother says. When his father took him to his glass shop to work, he had to quit because he couldn't bear the dirt.

But at the Maryland State Department of Education, Argentino, who is 51 and has a developmental disability, found a job that matches his personality perfectly. He organizes paperwork, makes copies of long documents and gets the mailings out. He never starts a job without finishing it.

If a page in a document is missing, he will spot it. If a name on an address is wrong, he will notice. He has been so successful at his job for the past 16 years that he is being honored today with a small party in a conference room on the ninth floor of the Baltimore Street office building. Around him will be a few co-workers from the Department of Special Education and Early Intervention Services.

"I think we all are crazy about Michael for the person he is and the work he does. He is just part of us," said Deborah Metzger, who works with him.

The department is charged with making sure that children with developmental disabilities receive proper services from the time they are born until they turn 21. So it is not surprising that employees feel part of their mission should be to hire some adults with those disabilities.

There are now two other office workers in Argentino's department who have developmental disabilities and a third on another floor of the education department. Argentino, the department's workers say, stands out for his longevity and dedication to the job.

Lena Argentino was never given a precise diagnosis of her son's disability. When she took him to the hospital at age 2 1/2 to have his tonsils out, they tested him and told her he was mentally retarded. He went to Catholic schools specializing in children with disabilities and did well, she said.

He sometimes gets angry or upset when things aren't right in the world, but his mother said she has to just sit him down and talk to him. "He has to understand there is good and bad in this life, that things aren't always good," she said.

His mother and Dorothy McMichael, who works with Argentino, keep in close touch to try to make sure he stays happy.

Argentino, who is shy, agreed to show a visitor his small, neat cubicle with pictures of friends tacked to the walls. He was putting labels on materials and said his job also includes copying and stuffing envelopes. His hobby, he said, is making "hook rugs of all sizes."

He rarely socializes, but he has formed deep bonds with a number of his co-workers. McMichael said she and Argentino tease and fuss at each other as though they are sister and brother. He has never forgotten her birthday, and since McMichael's mother had a stroke two years ago, Argentino has lit a candle at Mass each Saturday night for her.

"I love him for that," she said.

He became so close to another employee that when she died suddenly in 1998, co-workers found him grieving in the stairwell.

Carol Ann Baglin, assistant superintendent for special education, said the department first sought an individual with a disability for his job after other employees kept quitting. The work was not stimulating or interesting but was important to the smooth functioning of the office, she said.

Her staff went to The Chimes, a nonprofit organization that provides services for people with disabilities, and asked if they could place someone in the job.

At first, Argentino received a lot of support both from staff at The Chimes and from other workers at the special education department. Chimes paid part of his salary, and a Chimes coach worked with him regularly.

He became so "self-directed," Baglin said, that the state hired him as a regular employee many years ago.

Argentino's family is still the center of his life, his mother said. He goes to Atlantic City to gamble with his brothers once a year and goes to the ocean at summer.

"I am proud of my son. He has done a lot," said Lena Argentino.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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