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In major shift, the world of the retarded broadens

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Clay buttons, made in the PARC fine arts studio in St. Petersburg, are on diplay and for sale at the PARC gift shop.

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- With complete concentration, Mumcy Givens paints a still life of vibrant flowers, unaware that she sits at her easel because of a major philosophical shift in caring for people like her. Givens, 63, has an IQ of 42, less than half that of a person with normal intelligence.

Five years ago, Givens would have joined her peers at the Pinellas Association for Retarded Children in a community room equipped with tables and chairs, perhaps a TV, and spent her days in passivity. Or she would have been assigned tasks from a limited list to be performed in the secluded, protective environment of the PARC campus, at 3190 Tyrone Blvd. N.

Not anymore.

Givens, along with PARC's other adult "consumers," as PARC calls its clients, can choose how they want to learn, grow, spend a day or a lifetime.

"This is the new climate for the developmentally disabled," said Kathy McGhee, PARC vice president. "It's the realization that these people are capable of telling us what they want and need, that they can make choices."

Givens usually chooses the art studio.

"It has given her new ways of thinking, new ways to experience the world," said McGhee, a 27-year-veteran of PARC who conceived the arts program, which is the first phase of a total reshaping of the agency's programs for adults.

"In the past," said Karen Higgins, manager of the program, "you came and got whatever we offered. Crafts, contract work, daily living skills, or just a place to be. We told them what they were going to learn, and what we offered was minimal. Now we are offering them multiple choices they've never had before."

PARC's master plan is to phase out the sheltered workshop, in which the PARC clients were paid to work on simple projects such as assembling parts, contracted by outside businesses. The sheltered workshop was an innovation 25 years ago, but now it is considered outdated. Instead, said McGhee, the building will have a series of studios offering computer training, a photography lab, painting, drawing, claywork, sculpting "and anything else they tell us they would like to learn," McGhee said.

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Patty Comstock makes a sculpture of Santa Claus out of clay at the Pinellas Association For Retarded Children Fine Arts Studio in St. Petersburg. Artists can sell their work or keep it.

"Our programs will be based on what our consumers and their families tell us they want. If they want to learn independent travel skills, we'll offer it. If they want business skills, we'll offer it. If we need to build eight more independent living facilities, we'll find a way to do it."

"We will still have employment components," said Higgins, "so those who want to work can. But they will be off-campus with non-disabled co-workers."

Tom and Olita Childress sit together at a table drawing with colored pencils. Tom Childress, 60, always draws trains or planes. "My daddy worked on a train," he said. His wife, who is 64, prefers flowers. They have been married two years, though they met about 20 years ago in the garden at PARC. Each lived in a separate residential facility for years. Now they share a house.

"They decided they wanted to marry," said Higgins. "And we put together the support they needed to make it happen."

"We both clean and cook," said Childress, who, like his wife, has an IQ of about 55. "I'm a good guy. Don't smoke, drink or take pills. We had our honeymoon on the Amtrak train."

Adults qualifying for the program have IQs below 69 and one or two significant disabilities such as spina bifida or autism, Higgins and McGhee say. The program also serves adults with slightly higher IQs who are mentally ill.

Funding comes from the state's Developmental Disabilities Program and partnerships with individuals and businesses. PARC's guild, the League to Aid Retarded Children, put up the money for supplies. Creative Clay, an agency that teaches art classes for the disabled, trained staff members. Volunteer Dick Gomez made all the tables and chairs in the studio, and a father of one of the clients painted the space. Publix Super Markets donated money to outfit the studio, which has its own kiln.

The clay studio is Betsy Blake's domain. The 41-year-old, who has been enrolled in the day program since 1985, spends hours making textured ornaments that she will glaze and bake, then sell in the studio's new gift shop.

"To her, being an artist is her job now," said Higgins. "She's proud of what she does."

Like most artists, Givens is not easily satisfied. She often skips lunch to finish a painting, and when it is finished, she will begin a new painting on top of it before the paint has dried, a practice called pentimento, though Givens does not care to know that.

She has only painted for six months, coming to PARC after her mother died.

"She was so protected, she rarely left her house," said Higgins. "She would probably test higher but she's had so little experience. She never had friends. Now she has three here, and they do whatever she decides to do, painting or sculpture, each day. She loves that."

Givens, who will answers questions but does not look up from her still life during conversation, pauses and studies the reds and yellows on her canvas. She dips her brush in red, re-painting all the flowers and obliterating a morning's work.

"Why did you do that?" she is asked.

She says nothing and smiles.

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