Last winter, Beverly Laster made some very special friends.
Through her job as a switchboard operator-receptionist for an apartment building in White Oak, Laster met several retarded women and began volunteering as their "personal advocate" with the Montgomery County Association for Retarded Citizens (MCARC).
"It was really strange how it happened," she recalled. "I had just started working here, and I noticed several young ladies coming back and forth through the lobby.
"They were very friendly. When they came by, they would be the first to speak and say hi to me. But their volume was louder than most people, and the person who trained me for the job told me to kinda look out for them, that they were retarded adults in the MCARC program."
A United Way agency, MCARC operates a program that allows mildly and moderately retarded adults to live in apartments or group homes rather than in institutions. In Laster's building, seven retarded women live in apartments under the supervision of a counselor.
Laster later introduced herself to the counselor, Charlene Briscoe, and the two women wound up talking until the early hours of the morning. "I got interested in what the program was doing, we formed close friendships, and I became more and more involved in their lives," Laster said. "I got caught up with all that's being done to help them fit into the community."
One key to the success of the residential program is the involvement of "personal advocates" such as Laster. The advocates are volunteers who serve as special friends to the retarded adults by participating in activities with them, offering advice and intervening on the resident's behalf if a problem arises.
When Briscoe suggested that Laster be trained as a personal advocate, Laster enthusiastically agreed.
Nancy Stark, MCARC coordinator of volunteer services, met with Laster to discuss the goals of the program and to explore attitudes toward the mentally retarded. Formed in the late 1940s ny parents of mentally retarded children, MCARC now has 600 members and programs that include a preschool, a parent-to-parent counseling group and a developmental center.
Approximately half of the 65 people in the residential program previously lived in instittutions: "The whole intent is to help people become as independent as possible," said Stark, who said residents usually begain in group homes, then move to counselor-supervised apartments. "Ten years ago they said it couldn't be done - it's a fairly new concept for high-functioning mentally retarded."
"A personal advocate is really a friend," said Laster, who said that since she began volunteer work her stereotyped concept of retarded people has disappeared. "We've gone to the Capital Centre, to concerts and to shopping malls.
"Mostly it's very informal. They'll come by my apartment or I'll go to theirs and we'll sit, talk and laugh."
When a problem arises, Laster said she tries to turn it into a lesson. "Sometimes they might dress sloppily so we'll sit down and talk about grooming," she said. "One of the girls has a habit of not wanting to use her key at the front door, so I set aside a time where we worked on how to use the door key.
"I get as much out of the relationship as they do. I receive a special kind of love.
"They are not inhibited and will let you know they care.It's not unusual for them to want me to lean over and kiss or hug me out of the blue. I give everything I have, and the joy I get is fabulous. I believe it's made me a better person, much more open-minded and patient than I was before."
One of the residents, Avis Frasier, described her relationship with Laster. "I go to Bev when I need someone to talk to or for advice when I'm upset. She's a good friend."
Stark said the program looks for "people who can develop a relationship than can enable a resident to become as independent as possible. As opposed to a big brother or big sister who does something for them, an advocate helps them do something on their own."
The MCARC residential services program has a waiting list of 140 retarded persons who cannot be accommodated because there is not enough money, Stark said. MCARC relies on state and county funding, local donations and the United Way.
Last year, MCARC received $83,000 from the United Way. "I see the United Way as more and more important as time goes on," Stark said. United Way tours and brochures "allows MCARC to speak out to the community."