Special kids, normal setting Everyone benefits from this unique day-care center

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

IF THE PACT Daycare ever needs a slogan, it can borrow from the Army: Be all that you can be. And perhaps even enhance it a little: We'll help you be what you cannot be on your own.

For instance:

We'll clap for you if your little hands won't do that.

We'll help you say with your fingers what your lips cannot express.

We'll encourage you to be part of a group, even if you tend to wander off alone.

"We have two children who can't sit or stand; we try to provide what they can't," says Mary Henn, who teaches the youngsters enrolled at the PACT Daycare in southwest Baltimore. When the boy in her lap can't clap, she pats his hands with hers to give him the idea of what the other children are doing.

"We make them as much a part of it as possible," says Henn. The PACT center cares for disabled youngsters from birth to 3 years of age. It also takes care of children without disabilities.

Housed in a building owned by St. Jerome's Roman Catholic Parish on West Hamburg Street, the center is thought to be the state's only day care that combines the two groups and one of just a few centers that accept children with special needs.

"My real goal here is to provide this warm, nurturing environment . . . where they can blossom as much as they are capable of," says Henn, who has worked with young children for 18 years.

The PACT Daycare opened in June with three children and now serves 15 in full- and part-time care, says Carol Sutton, the director of the center operated by Parents And Children Together (PACT), a non-profit organization dedicated to helping special-needs children and their families. The center is licensed for 12 children full-time, but because some youngsters attend only part-time, it can serve more than a dozen families, and, in fact, has a couple of openings, explains Sutton.

The bright center, etched out of an elementary school classroom of the 1950s, has all the trappings of day care -- books and toys, a table and chairs close to the floor, watchful eyes, juice and cookies. At the far end of the large room is a sort of nook with cribs for the youngest children.

Compared to many day-care centers, there is no difference in the activities here nor -- to the untrained eye -- in most of the children. They toddle about, staring now and then at visitors but largely absorbed in their own play.

"Basically, they're just kids," says Henn.

Some have Cerebral Palsy. One has Downs Syndrome. Another is a severely brain-damaged 1-year-old.

Playing by their sides are three children without the others' "special needs," including 18-month-old twins who are talking up a storm, she says. These three are children of PACT staff members.

"The only difference [between those with "special needs" and those without] is what they're capable of," says Henn, who refers to her young charges as "my babies."

(The center also cares for five children enrolled in PACT's therapeutic nursery, which treats children at risk of neglect or abuse. The children play while their mothers and fathers attend parenting classes and therapy sessions. There is also joint therapy for parents and children.)

Both Sutton and Henn see the mixing of children with and without disabilities as vital to the work of the center. "We planned it that way," says Sutton -- partly to coincide with a new law that calls for disabled children -- even in day care -- to be integrated with those who are not, but mostly to teach both groups of children what they might not learn if they were segregated.

The children who are disabled have good examples to follow -- striving and reaching beyond their limitations, Sutton says.

And from an early age, the healthy children are likely to learn tolerance of people who are different, she adds.

"The special-needs child probably gains more," says Henn, but the others "will grow up more accepting and understanding. The children don't notice any difference."

"Learning goes both ways," adds Sutton.

The special-needs children have a range of disabilities -- from slight to severe.

Two-year-old Jamaal, who has Cerebral Palsy, recently returned from a month's hospital stay. He uses a special chair to help him sit up, says Henn.

Two-year-old Kevin, the hearing child of two deaf parents, came to the center because of his language difficulties. "His language has really blossomed since he's been here," says Henn, who is learning sign language so she can communicate better with him.

Kevin now talks -- and babbles -- with both spoken and signed words. "Quite often he's babbling in sign language." And he's fascinated with whispering. "He never hears soft sounds" at home, Henn says.

Nicole Good can see a change in her daughter, Haley, in the few months she's been at the center.

"Haley was very shy. She never had contact with other kids. She'd never been away from me. Now, she doesn't like to leave [the center]," her mother says.

Good had taken full care of Haley, who was premature and also has Cerebral Palsy, since she was born. Haley's early care included many visits to doctors and programs that kept her mother busy. When all that "started to die down," Good heard of the PACT center, and the relationship has turned out to be "just perfect."

In addition to Haley's social skills, Good says her daughter's speech has improved too. "They're pushing her right along."

Like Haley, many of the special-needs children have not been in day care previously. "It's been up to the family to find private day care," says Sutton. "That's extremely difficult." Since the center opened, two women have returned to school and a third is planning to.

Good is one of them. When Haley went to day care, she started at the Community College of Baltimore.

Speech, physical and occupational therapies are part of PACT's program for the children who need them. The therapists also work with Henn and the four other staff members so they can incorporate the therapy into the day-care routine.

"So many things can be made into a game," says Henn. "The others join in and they don't know they are participating in someone else's physical therapy."

PACT received a $100,000 grant from Roadnet, a subsidiary of United Parcel Service based in Timonium, and other smaller grants to establish, staff and begin operating the center, says Sutton, who was hired a year ago to direct the day care and the therapeutic nursery.

The center's tuition is $100 a week -- $25 a day for part-time students. But many of the families with children at the center cannot afford this much, so they pay what they can, she says. "One family can pay only $3 a week."

Even if all the families could pay the full tuition, that would cover only half of the cost of running the center and providing essential services, Sutton says. For now, the grants are supplementing the center's income; PACT is in search of additional financing.

"We're trying not to keep people from service because of money," she says.

The need for day care for disabled children came to light in some of PACT's other programs, such as parent-support groups, in which parents would often say they could not find either full-time or respite care for youngsters with special needs, Sutton says.

The center can serve only a few families, but those families are "very very pleased," observes Henn. "They seem so grateful that there is a place to bring their children where they are well cared for."

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