As I mentioned before, I had the opportunity last week to take a visit to the Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation and get a tour of the facility from its executive director, Eva Aguirre. The first time I ever wrote about this, I said I'd been driving past the place for years without ever knowing anything about it. Even after these past few eventful months, I've felt like there was a big gap in my knowledge about it. So I was really looking forward to learning more about it.
I don't know quite what I expected going in. I think what I had in mind was that the place was first and foremost a home for folks with mental retardation. But that's not quite true, and with the announcement of the Center's opening some group homes in the Houston area, it's even less true than before. The Center's biggest function, as Melanie Markley describes in her Labor Day weekend story, is an adult daycare and education center for folks with mental retardation. Part of the facility is for people who are medically fragile and need constant care. The Center allows the people who take care of these folks - parents, siblings, whoever - to leave them at a safe place where their needs can be met so they can continue to work. The alternative would be for the caretaker to be by their side pretty much 24/7.
That's a relatively small group, and they are separate from the larger community, who have access to all of the Center's other facilities, including the beautiful grounds, which are maintained by members of the Center's community. There are classes in life and job skills, various forms of employment such as soda can processing and furniture restoring (see the Chron story for details), and a variety of social activities such as day cruises and casino trips. I use the word "community" here purposefully, because it's immediately and abundantly clear from visiting that that's what the place is for its residents and daily inhabitants. Frankly, in many ways it felt like being on a college campus.
Which brings me to the residence hall, whose lobby felt so much like a college dorm I half expected to see someone at a table doing calculus homework. Perhaps the main way in which my expectations, whatever they were, about the place were off-target was when I asked Ms. Aguirre if there was a long waiting list for a spot in the residence hall. I figured there's only so many rooms, and most of these folks were here for the long haul. But no, there's no waiting list at all. It's the daycare programs where demand is exceeding supply. The deal with the city, which put the Center back on firm footing and which gave it full control over its destiny, is enabling them to look at ways in which it can expand those offerings - see my earlier discussion with David Baldwin for more on that. As for the residence hall, while its many inhabitants consider it home, there's a lot of interest in the new group homes, which the Center sees as a real growth opportunity for the future.
Another thing I don't think I really appreciated before my visit was the Center's uniqueness within Houston. I suppose I'd thought that a city this size would have more than one place like that to deal with what must be a fairly large population of people with mental retardation. But no, not according to Aguirre. While there are many other programs and services for this population, as well as many other group homes, there's nothing that does what the Center does. This is partly due to the Center's original purpose of being a resource for children, who at the time were not permitted in the public education system. The Center changed its mission when the schools took over that role, and they remain on the forefront of that kind of service.
I came away from my visit really impressed by the Center and its people, and just generally feeling good in knowing that they're there and they're doing what they do. They're excited about their future, and it's hard not to share the enthusiasm. The road they took to get where they are was long and arduous, but they couldn't be happier about where they ended up. "At one point, when things were looking bad, someone said to me 'Wouldn't it be great if we could just own the land we're on?'" Aguirre told me. "We hadn't ever thought that was a real possibility." Now the only thing left for them to do to fully realize the rest of their dreams is to raise enough money to make them happen. I have faith they'll do that, and I plan to do my little part to help. I hope you'll learn more about the Center, too, so you'll want to be a part of that as well.Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 11, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston