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Home Teaching : Maria Boire gives developmentally disabled children a nurturing place in which to learn skills of daily life.

April 04, 1991|ELAINE WALDORF GEWIRTZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The house that Maria built is a basic tract home. It looks just like all the others in the quiet Carpinteria neighborhood: one story, stucco, no signs or fancy doodads in the yard.

But that's the outside. The inside is another story.

Jennifer, Bobbie, Adrian, Shawn, Chad and Hillary live here, and they're developmentally disabled.

Severely handicapped since birth, these youngsters from Ventura, Camarillo, Oxnard and Agoura are unable to walk, talk or hear very well. They need help eating and require a watchful eye around the clock.

In 1987, Maria Boire founded Cornerstone House for children ages 9 to 17. The idea was to provide an intimate environment in which each child would receive personal attention from the staff.

"I dreamed of creating a therapeutic place for cerebral palsy kids that looked like a real home," said Boire, executive director of the facility. "I wanted them to feel so loved at Cornerstone, they would soak up everything we could teach them. And there are so many skills they can learn."

But Boire, a single mother of two children, is experienced enough to know love is not enough.

"Many people think children born with some degree of brain damage cannot be taught to do anything for themselves," Boire said. "I want to make these kids a part of society, not just a charge."

All of the children attend public school. When they return to Cornerstone at 2:30 each afternoon, the aides give them a snack and a bath. Then lessons, punctuated with praise, begin.

It might be matching pictures in a book, practicing speech or climbing the stairs. Each schedule has been planned by Boire and a consulting team of professionals.

The schedule for 9-year-old Hillary, who came to Cornerstone three years ago, includes practice walking instead of scooting on the floor. Today, she strolls through the house.

"Wipe your face, Hillary," Boire reminds her if she drools. All smiles, Hillary proudly lifts the fresh turquoise scarf around her neck to her mouth for a quick dab.

"Good girl, good girl," Boire says.

Boire has drawn on years of working with disabled children, first as a registered nurse and later as a UCLA graduate consultant specializing in feeding disorders at the Orange County Regional Center. Nine years ago, Boire, who lives in the same neighborhood as Cornerstone House, transformed her Montecito home into a residential treatment facility.

Word of Boire's work spread, and she soon had a waiting list.

"There is a great demand for homes like Boire's," said Eileen Houston, resource developer with the Ventura County Department of Health Services, which regulates group homes in the Santa Barbara-Ventura-San Luis Obispo area. The quality of life in a therapeutic home environment with a high staff ratio, she says, is better than that in most large facilities.

About 3 1/2 years ago, the six members of Cornerstone's board of directors purchased the second home in Carpinteria with their own money.

There are other group homes or nursing facilities for the almost 200 disabled children in the tri-county area who are placed outside their homes. But Boire has worked hard to make Cornerstone one of the best.

Glenda Glennier, executive director of Valley Children's Home in Simi Valley, said she meets with Boire regularly to discuss problems and exchange materials.

"Maria is an outstanding care provider. The kids have made a lot of progress there, and I don't say that a lot about other directors."

Boire also has the support of her staff. "We love the way it feels in here," said Linda Bailey, Cornerstone supervisor who directs many of the programs with the children.

The state funds two aides for six children, but Cornerstone has hired a third. "We have a lot of caring people here. These youngsters need as much personal attention as we can give them so they can go as far as they possibly can. Our board of directors not only pays for the extra aide, but constantly raises money for extra things we need," Boire said.

The board recently raised $33,000 for the addition of a therapy room to the house.

The extra care made a difference for Shawn Weachter, 10.

"Shawn was in two other homes in diapers before this, and it was awful," said his mother, Brenda Weachter, a single mother from Woodland Hills.

"I got a call one day from the first one saying all of a sudden Shawn was too heavy for them to lift and they didn't want him anymore. Shawn was 6 1/2 at the time and could not walk or talk. At the second house, the county discovered the caretaker had beaten one of the children and they were closing the place."

After three years with Boire, Shawn uses the bathroom himself, walks and speaks about 60 words.

About 1,400 developmentally disabled children under the age of 18 live in the tri-county area with their parents. Although the demands and problems of caring for a child with special needs are great, many parents are reluctant to consider outside placement.

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