Kevin Branch arrived at the downtown Biltmore Hotel with his arm around his younger sister Clara. The woman, standing chest-high to her brother, was smiling nonstop. This was her night, and the South Los Angeles man had taken off work to watch Clara, who is mentally retarded, hand out roses to the 425 guests at the Exceptional Children's Foundation annual banquet.
The event celebrated the foundation's 40th anniversary--a signpost that led many to recall how the group has affected their lives. The foundation serves about 1,000 developmentally disabled in Los Angeles County through adult workshops, infant classes and other programs.
Kevin Branch said Clara, 27, has become more extroverted since working, tearing labels from bottles for recycling, through the foundation. Clara has lived with Kevin and his wife, Rochelle, for the past year.
"A lot of people neglect to see what these people can do. They're treated like half or quarter of a real person," said Branch, 31. "This gives her something to look forward to doing. She'd go on weekends, too, if we'd let her."
Deborah Bogen of Santa Monica said her roughest time was just after her daughter Elizabeth--who is now 12--was born and diagnosed as mentally retarded. She went to a foundation therapy group for new mothers--and still remembers conversations from those days.
"You're very impressionable when the children are small," Bogen said. "To this day I can spot mothers who've had good infant work (therapy) and those who haven't. If they haven't, they're still really raw around this issue. And unrealistic. We got a shot of reality."
Robert Shushan, the foundation's director for 28 years, called Friday's banquet "a tribute" to parents such as Bogen--"and the way in which they've handled a shocking experience. No one is prepared for having a child that's less than perfect. This evening is about parents, their resilience, and what they can do with hope."
The charity group SHARE was honored as the foundation's largest private financial contributor over the years. The night also included installation of foundation president Charles Washington Jr., vice presidents Dale Dutton and Dale Fukamaki--and a string of testimonials.
Bonds That Grow
Parents talked about bonds that grow between members, the "security and stability" offered by the group, the ability to compare notes and see what lies ahead for a child.
Donna Dutton said she and her husband belong to the foundation as insurance for their daughter's future. Dusty, 11, has Down's syndrome.
"What we want for her is a life in which she's part of the community, where she can work, go to restaurants, and communicate with her non-disabled peers," Dutton said. "What really bothers me is when people imply that everybody's better off if our kids are segregated. That's really hitting a nerve."
But segregation isn't the plan. The foundation's goal in the late '80s, said Shushan, is to draw more disabled into the general work force--a step beyond the sheltered workshop idea--and to build more group homes. The foundation runs three such homes in Los Angeles County, with a fourth planned for West Los Angeles.
Fred Krause, representing the U.S. Health and Human Services Department at the event, added that prevention will be another focus of coming years. He foresees "breakthroughs" in genetic testing, early intervention, and "control of lead and chemicals in the environment."
"Twenty years ago, parents were told to put them in institutions. 'You can love them but that's all,' " said Fran Chasen, an infant-workshop teacher. Her satisfaction is "to see growing acceptance in society--the knowledge that doors are opening for these kids."
Audience in Tears
Many guests came with their disabled children, who were encouraged to participate. One such child, Michael Rankin, gave the invocation. Another, Antoinette Villereal, sang a rendition of "The Rose," that left many in the audience in tears.
The night ended with a dance band playing the usual rock 'n' roll. Branch and his wife, Rochelle, sat at a table listening--without his sister Clara.
She was off dancing.