Will Kirk, left, and Michelle Lyon, a program specialist who… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
The multicolored Gymboree in the backyard stands empty. The play area inside the picket fence is still.
And on a gray afternoon, as Cisco Nochera approaches the yellow house with the boarded-up windows and opens the door, it's the musty smell of smoke, not the laughter of children, that pours out.
"Unbelievable, isn't it?" says Nochera, a longtime teacher of special-needs children. "You never think this kind of thing is going to happen."
Nochera, 55, retired from the Anne Arundel County public school system two years ago after three decades as a "legendary" educator, in the words of a principal who supervised him. He made the move so he could plow his life savings, expertise and considerable positive energies into creating the Cisco Center, a small, nonprofit institution for developmentally disabled kids in this bungalow on Baltimore Annapolis Boulevard.
Here, Nochera and his wife, Carla, a speech and language pathologist, have been offering about 40 special-needs children per semester what parents call an almost magically supportive environment.
"It [was] such a warm, wonderful, safe place for our son to learn," says Amy Weekley of Pasadena, whose child, John, 5, has been diagnosed with PDD-COS, a form of autism. "That's rare in [the special-needs] field. You just walk in there, and you can feel that they love and cherish these guys."
But an electrical fire tore through the place last month, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of damage. The Nocheras are awaiting a payment on their claim from their insurance company. The center that was a ray of hope for many parents is hemorrhaging $6,500 a month.
Now offering a reduced menu of programs in a borrowed classroom, Nochera fears he might never be able to resuscitate his life's dream.
Stepping past half-burned children's artwork on a wall, he shines a flashlight into what used to be the kitchen, now a tangle of charred wood and melted plastic.
He stares for a moment, as if searching for an answer. "They say it started there," he says.
His dream began half a century ago, when Francis Nochera IV was growing up as the eldest son of a CIA agent based in Washington.
Nochera's father, Frank, showed his five kids a broad swath of life, including half a decade living in Port Said, Egypt. But Frank Nochera's personal values made the deepest impression.
"He always said it was our duty to look out for the less fortunate," Nochera says. "No matter how poor you are, he said, you can always help other people."
Nochera applied the idea while at Gonzaga High in Washington, a Jesuit school whose motto, "Men For Others," inspired him, he says, to do lots of volunteering in the community. It never occurred to him to apply it to special-needs kids, though, since he hadn't met any. That changed in 1970.
Eunice Shriver, sister of the late President John F. Kennedy, and her husband, R. Sargent Shriver, visited Gonzaga looking for volunteers for Camp Shriver, the Rockville summer camp for kids with disabilities that became the basis for the Special Olympics.
"This seemed different," Nochera says. He signed up, and a world opened.
Even without training, the 15-year-old had no trouble communicating with the kind of kids then called "retarded," perhaps because he saw them as people first. Even now, parents he works with say they've never heard him use the word "disability."
One day that first summer, Shriver staffers took him to visit Forest Haven Children's Center, an institution for developmentally disabled kids in Laurel that was not atypical of the day. What he saw made him sick.
They kept the low-functioning kids in the back wards, Nochera says, where they lived in a barnlike building with scant ventilation. Kids between ages 2 and 12 spent their lives in cribs. Negligent medical treatment left many deformed, staff didn't bother to remove feces and visitors never came.
"These children were treated like animals," he says, tears welling in his eyes.
By then, Eunice Shriver's brother, Robert F. Kennedy, had long since started helping publicize conditions at places like Forest Haven, which the federal government finally closed in 1991.
That movement led, in time, to the passage of Public Law 94-142 (the Right to Education Act) in 1976, which gave all "handicapped" people between ages 3 and 21 the right to an appropriate public education.
"That created a whole new field," says Nochera, who by then was far into it, making his own path.
Nochera, a burly, gladhanding man, has always been a pioneer. He couldn't help that. When he first started out, the study of special-needs children was so new that he had trouble finding programs that taught it.
Eventually, he got a degree in teaching the disabled from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania.
The closest he could come to focusing on autism in kids was a master's program in severe and profound disabilites at the Johns Hopkins University.