Program for Mentally Challenged in Jeopardy

Program for Mentally Challenged in Jeopardy

In Centreville High's class for mentally challenged students, Sarah Wisdom and Sara Katnich have learned skills and gained experience that will help them find jobs after graduation.

And there's a Fairfax County transition program that pays for vendors to help find them jobs, teach them specific skills and then stay there with the grads to keep them on task. Trouble is, the money that funds it is in serious danger of being cut from the next fiscal year's budget and, without it, students like Wisdom and Katnich face a bleak future.

"It's unfathomable to me," said Tina LaMarca, who teaches Centreville's FLEX (Functional Life Experience) class for students with moderate and severe mental retardation and disabilities. The class team-taught by her and Doris Dobson has 11 students; similar classes are in most county high schools, including Westfield and Chantilly.

"If this happens, everything I'm working toward and teaching my kids means nothing," said LaMarca. "Most of my parents couldn't afford [to pay for the transition program] themselves and, without it, their kids would end up couch veggies."

Parents became alarmed, Oct. 2, after Centreville's back-to-school night. A representative from the county's Community Services Board (CSB), which administers the county funds for the transition program, explained that upcoming county budget cuts are placing this program in peril.

"I was shocked," said Karen Katnich, mother of Sara, almost 20. "Except for serious illness or a death, it's one of the worst things that could happen to our family. And it's heartbreaking for Sara — to have worked this hard for all these years and then have this taken away is inhumane."

These students stay in high school until age 22, so Sara Katnich won't graduate until 2004. But for Sarah Wisdom, who'll graduate in June 2003, the jeopardy is imminent. And her mother, Cheryl Temple, is worried.

"It would be a disaster," she said. "My daughter's been preparing for years to work and is starting to look at job-site possibilities. She can't just be home, because my husband and I both work, and she can't be left unattended for nine hours. It would require childcare — plus she'd be bored and have nothing to do."

In Centreville's FLEX class, explained LaMarca, the goal is for the students to become as autonomous as possible. They learn vocational, communication and social skills, plus basic life skills such as cooking and personal hygiene. They attend three hours a day, four days a week, and implement their knowledge at various job sites.

Businesses hiring them include Centreville Florist, Inova Fair Oaks Hospital, Outback Steakhouse and Home Depot. Besides being trained to do particular tasks, the students learn how to interact and get along with others because they work side by side with non-disabled employees.

"They learn to advocate for themselves and ask for help, when needed," said LaMarca. "It gives them a feeling of pride and accomplishment — they're seen more for their abilities than for their disabilities."

Wisdom worked last year at Inova Fair Oaks, and program coordinator Cindy Rhodes and her staff enjoyed having her around. "Sarah prepared food with our cafeteria staff and delivered it, on her own, to each classroom," said Rhodes. "I was very pleased with her, and we appreciated her help."

The hospital has participated in this program four years. "Sarah was always willing to try things, and that's been the case with every student we've had here," added Rhodes. "They've all been very motivated and excited to be here."

They also work in their school, helping run the paper-recycling program, Xeroxing and shredding papers for teachers, stuffing envelopes for administrators, etc. And one student e-mails the secretaries every morning, asking if they need help.

After graduation, 10-15 vendors currently provide services helping them transition to permanent jobs in the community. Some work individually, but the majority work as a four-to-six-person team with other special-needs students. For example, some sweep and stock catsup and napkins at the Fair Oaks Burger King, and the vendor helps them every step of the way.

But if the money funding these vendors is slashed from the budget, the CSB says it would cost families $13,500-$20,000 each to pick up the tab themselves. "And that's every year," said LaMarca. "The majority of these kids — especially those with IQs of 50 and under — will need this type of support for the rest of their lives."

She knows how much her students have to offer the community and believes it would be a shame to deny them the chance. She said their bosses are always the happiest employers. "My kids love working, they're never absent and they're completely reliable," she said. "And they're stable employees; after a few weeks' training to wash dishes, for example, they'd do it for the next 30 years."

All they want is to work, said LaMarca. "Otherwise, they'd have to be put on welfare or in institutions — somebody's going to have to pay for them, one way or the other. I, as a taxpayer, would rather pay for something where they can work and contribute."

Last semester, Sara Katnich worked in the garden section of Fairfax's Home Depot store, unwrapping plants, unloading boxes, stocking shelves and sweeping. She enjoyed her duties and did so well that, during that time, her class named her its Employee of the Week.

Her mother says the students have proven they're capable, and they understand that, unless they do their jobs well, they won't get to work. But if the budget cut prevents them from working, she said, "I'm convinced they'll think they've failed and that it's their fault." She said it would also devastate her family financially.

"If my daughter can't work, I can't work — and I provide the medical insurance," explained Karen Katnich. "My husband is self-employed and, going that route, nobody would insure Sara." Besides, she said, Sara needs some portion of her life that she's earned as hers. "She'd miss the socialization and, at home, she'd have nothing to do but eat and gain weight. And her self-esteem would also suffer."

Temple is also upset about her child. "She didn't prepare all these years so she can sit home and watch TV," she said. "She has a right to be a productive member of society, and it's unfair not to give her that opportunity."

Rhodes said that, without the support staff funded by the transition program, it wouldn't be possible to hire the students: "The job coach helps the students get settled into a job and then monitors [them]."

Jessica Burmester, CSB board chairman, said today's students are living longer and staying in these programs until their 50s-60s, and more join every year, so she hopes the county "will continue to support" the program as much as it can.

Al Brandolini, whose daughter Jenny graduated from FLEX last year and now works in the cafeteria at Greenspring Village, called the program indispensable. "It allowed my wife to go back to work, after 23 years," he said. But most important, said Brandolini, is that Jenny's working: "She loves it — she can't wait to go to work, every day."

Not funding this program, he said, would be "unconscionable" because no alternative exists in the private sector. "If Jenny's with people, she's happy," he said. "She brings a vibrancy and effervescence." Vendor Mount Vernon-Lee provides her coach, and mom Ann is pleased: "Her job means so much to her that the thought of losing it — or the transportation that makes it possible — is scary."

Alan Wooten, CSB's director of Mental Retardation Services, said the program's funding for new graduates has never been in CSB's baseline budget. "We have to ask for it as an addendum item to each fiscal year's budget," he explained. "Only the continuing funding for students already in the program is in the baseline budget."

But Gov. Warner ordered budget-reduction proposals, and CSB had to comply. And, said Wooten, this could affect students like Brandolini, already in the program. In addition, county Executive Anthony Griffin asked all agencies for 5-percent budget reductions and forbid them to propose addendum requests.

It would be a $1.1 million cut, said Wooten, directly affecting new grads. "Because we're so highly privatized and the bulk of local funding is in day-support/vocational and transportation services, that's where most of the 5 percent would have to come from," he said. "We can't propose residential cuts that would leave people homeless."

Due to population growth and more special-needs students being identified, the number of students in the program keeps increasing. In June, 94 new grads expect to join, but their county funding is in jeopardy. Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) noted that Fairfax already gives CSB way more than other Virginia localities get, but he sympathizes.

"The Board of Supervisors has strongly supported it in the past," he said. "It makes no sense to spend the kind of money we spend educating them — only to pull the rug out from under them and stop." He said the Board will consider this issue in April, but must try to balance everyone's needs. Furthermore, with so many new grads, the required funding is twice last year's amount.

Still, said Frey, "Through thick and thin, we've figured out how to fund this program. To me, it says something about us as a society, the way we treat people like these."

The Arc, an independent nonprofit organization, advocates and provides support for developmentally disabled and mentally retarded people. And Executive Director Mark Russell is concerned about hardships families will face if the program's funding is cut. "The students would become more co-dependent and would take significant steps back [in their development]," he said. "It's not fair and it's not good public policy. It's a waste of human potential and the investment in their education."

On Wednesday, Oct. 23, at 7 p.m., The Arc will hold a workshop for parents about their options when their children become 22. It's at the Fairfax County Human Services Center, 12011 Government Center Parkway, Room 206; RSVP to 703-532-3214. For information about The Arc and its services, call Lynn Ruiz at that number.

Wooten also advises parents to speak at budget public hearings and contact their state and local representatives; see