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Serving the Disabled

Volunteers are honored for work with area handicapped

Jerry Schultz spends about an hour a day transporting developmentally disabled Arlington county residents from their homes to activities around the area. But he does more than just pick them up and drop them off.

“YOU REALLY GET to know them,” he said. “They trust you. Many of them need encouragement to walk, and they move at their own speed.”

When Schultz first started transporting developmentally disabled Arlington residents in his Blue Top Cab two years ago, he had no idea how many such citizens there were in the area. “It was mind-boggling,” he said. “Most people would be astonished as to how many disabled people are in Arlington.”

Schultz and 18 other Arlington County residents were honored on Tuesday, March 7, during a ceremony held in the Rock Bottom Brewery at Ballston Common Mall.

The people honored “take the extra time to make sure that these people can live in the community,” said Patrick Hope, chair of the Arlington Community Services Board.

The theme of this year’s ceremony was “A Life Like Yours,” highlighting the desire of developmentally disabled people to be able to function normally in society. County Board member Barbara Favola, who was the keynote speaker at this year’s event, notes that the businesses honored “provide a welcoming approach, allowing people to receive services in their settings.”

Nancy Mercer, executive director of The Arc, an advocacy group, said this year’s event was one of the largest she remembered. “There was also a terrific turnout of county officials,” she said. “Barbara Favola is a huge champion for us.”

LAURIE HARMER was honored for providing community service to developmentally disabled high school students in Arlington. She works for Young Life Capernaum Partnership, a nonprofit Christian ministry. “It’s not just about serving them,” she said, “but teaching them that they can be leaders, too.” Harmer and volunteers hold monthly dances, weekly clubs and organize summer camps.

Teenagers without disabilities participate as well. “Unless you’ve grown up with a family member or friend with a disability, it can be intimidating,” Harmer said. But the results are positive. The teen volunteers start out hanging out in the back of the room, she said, but soon enough are greeting their disabled counterparts with hugs. “I see little miracles everyday,” she said.

Ariel Schwartz, a 16-year-old sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School, helped start a Top Soccer program in Arlington in 2002, which teaches soccer skills to children with disabilities.

“I really love seeing people who are kind of scared come away loving it,” she said. She enjoys seeing the kids with disabilities “learning more and getting more confident,” with each session.

While groups like The Arc have made great strides, there are still the problems of “funding and stigma,” says Mercer. As with most citizens, the biggest obstacles are “housing, transportation, jobs and education,” she says. Budget cuts at the federal level have made funding difficult, but Gov. Mark Warner’s budget allocation of a half-million dollars is still intact and has been increased by the legislature, according to Mercer. “But in Northern Virginia, it’s still not enough for the cost of living,” she says. One of the biggest problems is “finding people who want to do [direct care] work,” says Mercer, which is why it’s important to honor the people who don’t get paid or are underpaid.

Job training exists for the developmentally disabled, but placing them in jobs can be difficult. Jane Cherney has been active in the county advocating for people like her son, who is 16 and has Down’s Syndrome.

ONE OF HER goals is to get the county government to “open up more opportunities for the mentally disabled to work within government ranks.” She says that private businesses look to the government, which “has to be a model citizen.” Honoring individuals in the community is important, she says, because “it’s always been grassroots people who have gotten the most change.”

The following individuals and businesses were also honored at Tuesday’s event.

* In the Recreation/Sports category: Mark Mitchell, Phil and Grumpy Vitale, and Bernie Woofley.

* In the Transportation category: Iftikhar (“Iffy”) Ahmed and Sarom Suon.

* In the Community Services Groups category: Kathy Barton, Pastor Bob Glahn and the Wednesday Evening Group, Pam Harmon and Beth Posey.

* In the Individual Volunteers Group: Bill and Janet Bickel, and H. John Schell, AIA.

* In the Professionals category: Dr. Jack Bell, DDS; Drs. Theodore Corcoran and Travis Patterson, DDS; Drs. Edward Nelson and Rose Marie Gonzales, DDS; and Dr. Lea Watson, DDS and Peter Xereas.