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Their Love Affair With The Lambs : A Unique Home and Workplace for the Mentally Retarded

Charles Hillinger's America

September 11, 1988|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

LIBERTYVILLE, Ill. — Marc Nachtman, 38, welcomes customers from behind the big glass display case in the chocolate shop with a beaming smile and a cheery greeting: "Don't be hasty, our chocolates are really tasty. What you see is what you get, real chocolates, you won't forget."

Nachtman is mentally retarded. For six years, he has lived and worked at The Lambs, a unique, heart-warming 63-acre home and workplace for 181 mentally retarded adults.

Nachtman is assistant supervisor of Aunt Mary's Country Store, a position he worked up to in one of the nine commercial enterprises at The Lambs. The businesses are run by mentally retarded men and women.

"For someone like me and all my friends, here, this is a beautiful place. You can't find a nicer place than this. It's just super," said the friendly chocolate salesman.

Each year about 350,000 people come to The Lambs, 35 miles north of Chicago, to: dine at its outstanding restaurant; savor the banana splits, root beer floats and ice cream cones at the Sweet Street Ice Cream Parlour; and buy jams, jellies, homemade cookies, T-shirts, gifts and pets in the various shops on the premises.

Prepare Food, Wait Tables

Mentally retarded residents prepare the food and wait on tables at The Lambs Country Inn restaurant. They make the ice cream and run the ice cream parlor. They make and sell the cookies, jams and jellies. They silk-screen and sell T-shirts. They staff the gift and pet shops.

Parents bring children to The Lambs to enjoy the Farmyard and Petting Zoo. Chicago-area residents have had a love affair with The Lambs ever since two teachers of the mentally retarded, Corinne Owen and Robert Terese started the innovative, highly successful project 27 years ago in a tiny storefront on State Street in Chicago's Loop.

"Bob and I were teaching the mentally retarded at Chicago's Hull House," Owen, 72, recalled. "We wanted to give them dignity, self-confidence, a purpose, to discover their potential and make them productive, independent, well-rounded individuals, to increase the quality of their lives. So, we started a pet shop and employed a dozen of our students. The idea was so novel, so unthinkable putting retarded in public."

A Responsible Role

Terese, 74, said the reason they decided on a pet shop was "our people never had the opportunity to take care of something. They were sheltered and overly protected. They themselves were always taken care of. Now it was turned around. . . . They assumed the role of responsibility to care for the pets in the shop, to interact with the public."

Owen and Terese had no money, just an idea. But they had the support of the parents of the first 12 "lambs." They called their pet shop The Lambs from a verse in the Bible: "John 21:15. Jesus said to feed my lambs."

The owner of the store gave them six months free rent. A major pet supply firm provided birds and animals. The year was 1961. They were on their way. The shopkeepers blossomed.

"They were dedicated to their jobs," Terese said. "They loved the animals, loved caring for them and enjoyed their interrelation with the public and the public reacted in kind."

Local newspapers and television stations featured The Lambs pet shop in the small State Street store. By 1965, Terese and Owen were looking for a bigger place. One day they were in Libertyville and saw the original 48 acres for sale for $186,000 but they didn't have that kind of money.

Then Julie Ann Lyman, a Chicago Tribune feature writer, told W. Clement Stone, an insurance company president and widely known Chicago philanthropist, that The Lambs could really use the land. Stone bought it and donated it to the program.

Mari Anne Wehr, 33, was busy in The Lambs cookie kitchen. "When's your birthday?" she asked.

"April 1st," came the reply.

"That will be on a Saturday next year," she said without a pause.

Wehr has an uncanny knack of being able to tell right off the day of the week for every date this year and next. "She is amazing. We have no idea how she does it," said Regina Lemke, 30, of The Lambs public relations staff.

"People come here the first time not knowing what to expect," said Gerald Friedman, 55, executive director, and one of 140 on the staff. "Seeing our people in normal, everyday life-experience situations, visiting with them, leaves everyone with a good feeling.

"Our residents are so proud of this place, so proud of what they are doing. They're aware of their shortcomings, aware of whatever it is that sets them apart. . . . They have a sense of belonging. This is their place. We are the visitors."

Forty residents needing closer supervision live in a dormitory; 35 live at home with their parents and commute to work at The Lambs; three live in a home off the grounds; the other 108 live in nine, large attractive houses on the premises. There are six men and six women to each home, each has his or her private room.

'Very Cooperative'

Each home has house parents who supervise residents. Mary Lou Prosise, 37, is a house parent.

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