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Lack of Recruits Could Spell End of Corps : Program for Mentally Disabled in a Strange Struggle for Survival

December 17, 1987|BILL MANSON

POWAY — The eye of the hurricane is at Lake Poway. On the far side, in the bush. Lee and April and Doug, sitting in the dappled shade of the scrub trees, on their slashers--big knives like the kind Crocodile Dundee flashed in Manhattan--to keep their bottoms off the mud.

There is the sound of the odd jay in the trees. A far-off curse by a fisherman who's just dropped a fish from his hook. A nearby rustle of something small under the leaves.

"We're a bit slower than regular people, that's all," says Doug, 23. "People who need to take it slower should try this. It shows them about work."

Lee and April nod. They don't speak too much to outsiders, unless you really push them.

"Like, at home I was a slob," says Doug. "I never did anything for my parents. I left a mess in my room. Never mowed the lawn. Now, I'm out of there at 5:45 every morning. To come to work here. They've taught me to enjoy working. I'm earning money. Plus I help my dad now all the time. I'm always asking them what I can do next."

The others nod agreement.

"I was working at Rex disassembling bike parts," says April. Rex Industries is a sheltered workshop for "mentally challenged" people--people with any problem affecting mental function, from retardation to epilepsy to head injury to emotional problems. April is epileptic.

"But here we're learning things," she says. "Useful things. How to clear tracks, fight forest fires, fight floods. And Adolfo teaches us a lot."

Adolfo Ramirez is their supervisor. He's a year younger than his three charges, but is like a stern and loving father to them. All the way around the lake he has been talking of the things he has taught them: How to cut trails, how to fight erosion, how to be responsible for one another, what insects and plants are poisonous, how to be a group: If one hurts, the whole crew goes down. But mainly he teaches them how to work, how to be useful citizens. That is what this is about.

3 Months Old

"This" is the North County Conservation Corps. And around these three corps members out at Lake Poway, a storm is raging. The corps is only 3 months old, but it could be history by tonight. It has the money, it has the staff, it has the work for dozens of young people. All it lacks is the disadvantaged people themselves. Lee and April and Doug are it--after nearly six months' recruiting.

Tonight, a board meeting of the North County Association of Retarded Citizens will decide whether to kill the $176,000 program or give it time to find the people it claims it can do so much for.

The California Conservation Corps, which awarded the program to the association and gave it $122,000, or upward of three-quarters of the budget, is considering pulling funds if no more recruits appear. The California Department of Rehabilitation has picked up the remaining bill--about $53,000--and promised support through its counselors, the primary source of recruits for the program. It too is happy to see it prosper but will let it die if it can't come up with the recruits.

The problem, for Gary Luce, whose baby this whole idea is, is the guardians of the mentally disabled. They won't let him at them, he says. They won't let him show parents how he could really help their kids back into the mainstream, he asserts.

For months now, Luce has been punching against a sponge rubber wall of the nicest possible people giving him the greatest possible encouragement--but no recruits for his program. He has visited and talked to the state Department of Rehabilitation's counselors--each of whom has a number of mentally disabled cases and, says Luce, a predisposition, at least in North County, to "safe" programs that keep their charges happy but separated from the world of "normal" people.

Special Courses

He believes they are locked in "enrichment" programs, special courses at community colleges--everything but programs specifically aimed at returning them to as normal and productive a life as possible on the "outside."

"Everybody is very supportive, verbally," said Luce. "But we never get further than that."

One obvious problem in prosperous North County: "What we do, and what we teach is not real prestige work," said Luce. "Sanitation, landscaping . . . but we've chosen these, because they kind of ease our people into society. It's easier for them to mingle, plus these are jobs that need people.

"April, for instance, she's guaranteed work when she gets out. The other two, also. But a lot of people think they can do better. Parents, they still want better things for their children, so they keep them at special programs at community colleges."

Heading the counselors of the Department of Rehabilitation is Arvis Steiner, the district administrator for the department in San Diego. She says she encouraged her people to support Luce's program.

Support Questioned

But there's a feeling on Luce's team that the support is, well, not 100%.

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