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Aiming for independence

For people with disabilities, UCP offers care and programs

For people with disabilities, UCP offers care and programs

May 20, 2002|BY KATE COLEMAN

katec@herald-mail.com

"Gary's a good person," says Bob Martin.

Martin leads the staff at the group home where Gary lives just south of Hagerstown.

Gary - Gary Joyner, 44 - is a person who likes to watch "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune."

His favorite song is Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman." His favorite recipe is macaroni and cheese.

Joyner is a person who has had cerebral palsy since birth.

He lives in the pleasant house owned by United Cerebral Palsy (UCP), a nonprofit organization that advocates and supports the independence, productivity and full citizenship of people with cerebral palsy and other disabilities.

The house where Joyner lives is also home to two other men, both of whom also use wheelchairs and have medical needs. The house is staffed around the clock by Martin, the lead residential staff person, three other full-time and two part-time employees, all of whom are certified as nursing assistants and in first aid and CPR.

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One of three "community living opportunities" in Washington County, the house looks like any family's home. The cozy living room has a couch, comfortable chairs and homey touches, including a knitted throw, a welcoming grapevine wreath, woven place mat on the table.

There's a bird feeder outside the picture window, with recently planted marigolds, impatiens and petunias underneath. "We've got a dozen bunnies out back," Martin says.

How does Gary Joyner feel about his home?

"I like living in my own room. I like to listen to my stereo. ... I'm very happy. It's all right," he says.

Joyner's words don't come easily. He speaks slowly - one word at a time - concentrating hard, pausing to swallow, smiling broadly when he's said what he has to say.

"He's got a beautiful spirit," says his mother, Glossie Joyner.

Doctors said her son would never walk.

"I worked so hard to get him to walk," she says. It took three years, but Gary Joyner walked. Then he ran.

He can't run or walk or use his hands now.

"This could happen to any of us. It just happened to be me," Glossie Joyner, 77, says.

Gary Joyner lived with his parents in Baltimore until his father got sick in 1979. Then he was in a home with 40 to 50 people before coming to independent living in Hagerstown in 1985.

Glossie Joyner has thought about moving her son closer to her, but she worries that the adjustment would be too hard. "I'm glad he's there," she says.

He goes to the adult day program at UCP in Hagerstown weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. where he joins about 40 other people - people with a wide range of disabilities and medical needs, ages 17 to 70-something, including blindness, mental retardation, behavior disorders, head trauma or brain injuries.

The day program keeps participants active and engaged.

"They love music," says Nancy McHenry, day program supervisor. The staff works creatively, providing clients with exercise, arts and crafts, games, aromatherapy, a lot of cooking activities.

Clients who were able recently boarded a "bus" made from a refrigerator carton, and took a slide-show trip to Africa, a "tour guide" providing commentary via a karaoke machine.

A "vacation" to Hawaii was created with the help of beach umbrellas and suntan lotion - so the people in the program could experience the smell of the beach, McHenry says.

Staff members try to reach their clients in every possible way.

Before he died in March at the age of 40, Tom Miller attended UCP's day program for nearly 12 years.

Like 65 percent of the organization's clients, Miller did not have cerebral palsy. He suffered brain injuries in a car accident on his way back to finish his senior year at West Virginia Institute of Technology in Montgomery, W.Va., in February 1983.

After some rehabilitation, the young man lived in local nursing homes, and his mother, Tish Miller, took care of him every evening.

"UCP has been the backbone of Tom's life while we have been in the nursing home," says Tish Miller, who sometimes still speaks of her son in the present tense. "I don't know what I'd do without UCP."

Tish Miller says it was her dream to have her son living in one of UCP's residential homes. That dream was supposed to have become a reality next month, when the organization opens its fourth house for independent living in Hagerstown.

Tom Miller knew about the house. "He grinned from ear to ear. He was excited because he knew he was moving," McHenry says.

The house needed some renovations - in part to accommodate the 6-foot-3-inch Miller. Tish Miller is helping to pay for those renovations - even though her son will not live in the house.

Tish Miller is not alone in her praise of the small, independent living homes UCP runs.

"I'm proud of our houses," says Kevin Berg, vice president of operations for UCP whose office is in Frederick.

Years ago, people with disabilities typically were placed in institutions. But smaller group home settings provide a more natural feeling of family, and more of a chance to develop lasting relationships with the community. The residential setting is worthwhile, he says.

Every person needs to feel connected.

"There," Berg says, "but for the grace of God, go you or I."

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