Program trains students to live, learn, love

The Baltimore Sun

Michael likes to give hugs and can be something of a night owl.

Jenny bowls and is always up for an outing.

Becky delights in music and enjoys shrimp and diet Coke.

They are clients whom McDaniel College graduate students Melanie Soper and Ila Bryant care for as part of a two-year program. The students earn a master's in human services management in special education, while gaining practical experience through a simultaneous live-in internship with three developmentally disabled clients.

"They are the house managers," said Tom Zirpoli, CEO of Target Community and Educational Services, the nonprofit that runs the program through a partnership with McDaniel College. Zirpoli also holds the Laurence J. Adams special education chair at the college, which pays his salary through an endowment.

"They take them to all their medical appointments; they take care of them; they cook; they maintain the house," he said.

For more than 20 years, the unique Carroll County-based partnership has grown from a three-house operation into nine houses in Carroll and another two in Montgomery County, as well as apartment homes and vocational programs, among other services.

The participating students receive a 75 percent tuition scholarship from McDaniel, along with a Target-funded graduate stipend, health care benefits and room and board, Zirpoli said.

About 20 students are enrolled in the graduate program. Target serves about 250 children and adults annually, Zirpoli said.

McDaniel President Joan Develin Coley, who has been involved with Target for years, said the program dovetails nicely with the college's concentrations in special education and human resources.

"It is an important part of the college," Coley said. The human services management curriculum is unique in the kind of training it provides for how to run such a program, which puts its graduates in demand for various jobs in that sector, she said.

The community living managers, as they are called, also must juggle a full-time job with the demands of being a graduate student.

"It takes someone who is really committed to do this kind of work," Zirpoli said.

The need for that kind of commitment is what led to a marriage of sorts between the college and nonprofit back in 1983, when some parents looking at homes for their developmentally disabled children turned to McDaniel for help, Zirpoli said.

By tying homes to the college, they could tap into a pool of managers and caretakers who were invested -- and interested -- in the field.

"The work is difficult, it is challenging," Zirpoli said, explaining the typically high turnover rate in such management. "Very few people stay doing that kind of work more than one or two years."

Soper and Bryant live on the downstairs floor of one of the nine custom-built homes designed for their residents, who vary in the severity of their disabilities.

Michael and Jenny, for example, do not speak. Michael, 29, has a seizure disorder, while Jenny, 39, and Becky, 59, have Down syndrome. Becky also has Alzheimer's. To protect their privacy, only the clients' first names are used.

In her previous residence, Soper said the three tenants, whose developmental disabilities were milder, talked a lot.

Soper, who is in her second and final year, said she has gotten a lot out of the program.

"I really like interacting with the clients," she said. "They are very diverse and interesting ... . It is such a joy to work with them."

The two years have taught her about time management and about patience. She also has learned never to underestimate what her charges can do.

On a recent evening, the three waited for their Chinese takeout in their Westminster living room. Michael, 29, reached up from his chair to alternately wrap Bryant and Gina Mears, a community living assistant, in tight hugs. Becky sat in a nearby easy chair with a brightly colored miniature keyboard in her lap, pressing different keys and buttons.

Jenny played on the carpet with a machine that popped up little plastic balls to the tune of "Pop Goes the Weasel."

"We all just get along like a big family," Mears said later, as she prepared to pick up dinner.

In earlier days, Becky would spend part of her day at the senior center to do arts and crafts, Mears and Bryant said. Michael enjoys rides in the car, Bryant said, while Jenny participates in vocational programs or goes swimming and is learning simplified signs to communicate.

"The Target program really is unique, in that it focuses on the need for professionals -- well-trained professionals -- to be working with people with developmental disabilities," Coley said.

The program's graduates walk away with experience -- a combination Zirpoli said he has yet to find anywhere else.

That combination is probably what draws employers, Coley said.

"People know that they are not coming from a solely theoretical background, but that they have an applied portion of the program as well," she said. "It is awfully important ... [to] have had an opportunity to apply what they have learned before they get in the workplace."

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