Future of school for special-needs students in limbo

Insurance claim from fire rejected

school needs $150,000 to reopen

April 16, 2010|By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

Cisco Nochera figured he'd be closer to reopening by now. After the Feb. 3 fire that destroyed the center he runs for students with special needs, the retired Anne Arundel County public schools teacher contacted his insurance company, hoping for the money to rebuild.

And he continued to do the work he had always done at the Cisco Center, his small nonprofit institute for developmentally disabled kids. But now, instead of seeing 45 kids a week in the rented bungalow in Pasadena where the center was located, he and his wife, Carla, a speech and language pathologist, are working with fewer children inside a single room at another day care center in Millersville.

But then he got word last week from his insurance company that his claim was denied.

"We're devastated," said Nochera, who has for decades worked with developmentally disabled children. "We were hoping to get that money so we could at least get in there and get started. They won't give us any answers."

A representative from the insurance company could not be reached for comment.

The former center, nearly destroyed in the four-alarm blaze, which Nocera says likely started because of faulty electrical wiring in the stove, is flooded and covered in mold.

"The inside has to be gutted," Nochera said. He estimated it would cost $150,000 to make all the repairs.

Convinced the fire started because of a defect in the stove, Nochera got a lawyer, Eric Wellham, working on a pro-bono basis, to send a certified letter to the appliance company asking for compensation. Nochera said he touched the stove last summer when it was turned off and it shocked him. He called the appliance company, and it sent a repairman who replaced all of the stove's electronics. He said the stove is still under warranty.

Nochera and Wellham have not heard back from the store where the stove was purchased.

Despite everything, Nochera remains determined to soldier on. And he's gotten a lot of community support, he said.

Kirsten Davis, the director of Vineyard Childcare Center in Millersville, located at the Vineyard Community Church in Millersville, offered space to Nochera soon after the fire.

"We had heard about it, the night after the fire, and it just kind of moved my heart," Davis said. "We had an extra classroom that we weren't using. It's been great. I know he does a great job, and the families are really appreciative."

Several community groups and businesses have held fundraisers, Nochera said, and people have donated books and supplies.

Still, Nochera is losing about $6,500 a month. And the drop-off in enrollment, mostly because of commuting troubles for parents who can't get to the new location, doesn't just hurt his pocketbook, he said.

"I even offered a car pool to get them out here," Nochera said. "It's killing me. Some of the kids have been with me since we opened. And they can't come, or only occasionally. It's having a big effect on us."

Amy Weekly's son John, 5, was diagnosed with a form of autism, and he attends the center four days a week. Although the commute is longer — 30 minutes to the new place in Millersville compared with a 15-minute ride to the old location — her son loves the school so much, she couldn't imagine not sending him.

"It's farther, and we spend more time in the car every day," said Weekly, a Pasadena resident. "But I've had an excellent experience there. My son has thrived. My son is always excited to go."

Weekly added, "The center's a gem, it really is. It's the only special-needs preschool in the area. To have such a wonderful place to go where you feel confident leaving your child, we need to do everything we can to help them."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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