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A Life Dedicated to Helping the Disabled


In 1980, when Audrey Hughes was 16, she wanted to establish a residential summer camp for developmentally disabled children with behavior problems. Told she had to be at least 18 and a college graduate, Hughes opened the camp anyway, with an older friend serving as director.

Now 29, Hughes is executive director of two group homes she and her husband, Larry, created:the Free to Be Ranch in Tarzana, which cares for six girls, and the Free to Be Manor in Encino, which houses six boys.

Hughes still hasn't gotten that degree, though. "I have a B.A. in experience," she says.

The ranch, opened in 1984, and the manor, opened in 1986, have provided a caring, supportive environment for about 25 young people ages 4 through 21 with such conditions as mental retardation, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and autism. They are named after actress Marlo Thomas' book, "Free to Be . . . You & Me."

"We feel our children have the right to live, to be free to live with other people and have full and productive lives in their community," Hughes says.

"We believe all behavior has a communicative value," Hughes says, "so we try to teach alternatives to maladaptive behavior. Semantics is a lot of it. Instead of saying, for example, 'You didn't keep your room clean, so no Nintendo for two weeks,' where the two are unrelated, you say, 'You can't play Nintendo until your room is clean,' so there's a connection."

The children earn rewards, she adds: "For a half-hour of nonaggressive behavior, they get a token, and when they have a certain amount, they might get a trip to 7-Eleven."

One of Free to Be's greatest success stories is a 15-year-old boy who had such severe behavioral problems at age 8 that his school district and doctors recommended placement in a state institution.

"He was aggressive and self-abusive--he would scratch his face, stuff socks down his throat, pull his pants down and urinate anywhere," Hughes says. "We found out he had a lot of allergies and got him off dairy products, which eliminated his hyperactivity.

"Now he might grab or pinch once in a while, but that's it. He lives at home with his mother, and he's not on any medication."

Success or no, money problems are constant, Hughes says. A third Hughes facility in Canoga Park folded in 1990 after two years due to lack of funds. Larry Hughes relinquished his job as administrative director in 1992 when money ran out for his salary and is now primary care-giver to the couple's two daughters and their two developmentally disabled foster sons (an adopted daughter lives in another group home).

Audrey Hughes takes a paycheck only when her mother, who volunteers as bookkeeper, tells her there is enough income to do so. She recently received grant assistance for her next goal, a program called Supportive Options, in which foster families--which she is recruiting--would care for developmentally disabled children.

"We're licensed and have two certified homes waiting to take children," she says. "But we need more money. It all comes down to funding."

(Readers can contact Audrey Hughes at the Free to Be office, (818) 342-7400.)

* This occasional column tells the stories of the unsung heroes of Southern California, people of all ages and vocations and avocations, whose dedication as volunteers or on the job makes life better for the people they encounter. Reader suggestions are welcome and may be sent to Local Hero Editor, Life & Style, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.

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