Mr. Fix-its help disabled stay on path to independence

At Kilmer Center in Vienna, which serves students ages 5 through 21 who have severe disabilities, every wheelchair, desk and toy needs to be custom-designed. When things break down or don't fit, retired engineer Bill Porter is on hand to help. He might be asked to build a bookshelf, alter a piece of equipment or arrange switches so that a student can operate a computer.
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009

Many students enrolled at Fairfax County's schools for the disabled cannot talk. But they greet their teachers every day, pressing a finger or a toe to a switch that prompts a recorded voice to say "Hello!" or "Good morning."

The switches are part of a breathtaking array of technology that helps students communicate or turn on music or choose what they want for lunch. Other devices help them move around the building and play sports. With so many gadgets, it helps to have someone handy around to fix them when they break.

That's where Lee Jost and Bill Porter come in. Both retired engineers in their 70s, they spent their careers working on satellites or elaborate circuits for the railroads. Now they are tightening loose wires and adjusting wheelchairs.

Kilmer Center in Vienna and Key Center in Springfield serve students ages 5 to 21 who have severe disabilities, often birth defects or disorders that affect their brains and bodies. The specialized schools have small classes, each with a teacher and two health aides, and students get extra help from physical therapists, occupational therapists, a speech therapist, a psychologist, a social worker, a registered nurse, a vocational coordinator and, not least, a handyman.

"We created a job description, which is Mr. Fix-it," said Kilmer Principal Michael Marsallo. "If things break down, we can take care of it on site and make sure students are using the right equipment . . . that will lead them to be more independent."

Jost and Porter have never met, but they have traveled similar life paths. Both were born during the Depression to parents who knew how to stretch a dollar by repairing things, not replacing them. They both served in the Army Signal Corps -- Porter for two years, Jost for 20 -- developing communications systems for the military. Then they worked for rival phone companies before finding their way to special education and the world of assistive technology.

Porter, 76, came to Kilmer in the early 1990s with the volunteer group the Telephone Pioneers, which was asked to design and build an indoor playground that would be safe for students with disabilities.

He was nervous at first. "I didn't want to be around handicapped kids," he recalled. But his discomfort faded, and his admiration grew for students who were "doing the best they could" and teachers whose affection for them was clear. "Pretty soon, you realize that you are in love with these kids," he said.

Nearly two decades later, the slides and tunnels have long since been stowed away. But Porter is still there, now a full-time employee, fixing electronics and repairing equipment.

Personal connection

Jost, 74, had a personal connection to Key Center: His grandson went to school there. Carson, now 17, was born with Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome, a rare condition caused by missing genetic material on the fourth chromosome. What's missing, Jost explained, is "all the instructions for living." He recalled how a nurse taught his infant grandson to suck by stimulating different nerves in his face, because he did not have that instinct.

In 1997, not long after he retired, Jost thought he'd like to volunteer at Key Center. But he came home after the first day feeling unsettled. He wasn't sure that he had the medical know-how to volunteer in classrooms with students whose conditions were so fragile. He soon saw another way he could help: A flier was sent home advertising back-to-school night. "If you have a wrench or a hammer or a screwdriver, please bring it along," the flier stated. "We have lots of things that need to be fixed."

Jost was there the next morning, his trunk filled with tools. A physical therapist had amassed a list of 27 things that needed to be fixed. By noon, 11 of them were.

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