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DISABLED WOMAN LEARNS SKILLS AND SELF-ESTEEM AT REST HOME

SHARE DISABLED WOMAN LEARNS SKILLS AND SELF-ESTEEM AT REST HOME

Nursing assistant Rosalyn Roberts sits nose-to-nose with Karl Davis in his room at the Heritage Convalescent Center. She pats a warm washcloth on his wrinkled face and lathers it with shaving cream. Then she deftly takes a razor in one hand, tips Davis' head back with the other and strokes the stubble from his cheeks, chin and neck. There isn't a nick on him.

"Well, how's that?" Roberts asks. "Boy, you look better than you looked this morning. There you go, buddy."She dries Davis' face with a white towel and is ready to move on to the next room.

No one would have let Roberts near them with a razor six years ago.

Dually diagnosed as mildly mentally retarded and mentally ill, Roberts, 39, had serious behavioral problems. Her inner emotional struggles often erupted into unpleasant episodes. Roberts was fired twice from her job filling and labeling plastic containers at Summit Employment Agency, where she worked with other developmentally disabled people.

But her parents, Hardy and Helen Roberts, and Summit director Richard Pace didn't give up on her. Roberts worked her way through a 10-week nursing assistant course, passing the certification test at Utah Valley Community College on the second try. Summit, a state-contracted, nonprofit employment agency for disabled adults, got her a job at the convalescent center.

Roberts shaves the grizzled faces of 20 elderly men every morning, just one of the assigned duties she keeps on a list in her jacket pocket.

"It's quite remarkable for her to be able to do that," Pace said.

Heritage administrator Shirley Garrett was initially leery about hiring a developmentally disabled person.

"When I was first approached, because I had an experience with this years ago in another facility, I wasn't really too anxious to do it," she said. Pace persuaded her to give Roberts a chance.

Heritage Convalescent Center has survived the nicks and cuts that come with hiring mentally retarded people.

The center was among some 200 Utah County employers of developmentally disabled people that were honored this week at Provo Park Hotel. Alpine, Nebo and Provo school districts, the western region of the state Division of Services for People with Disabilities and the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation sponsored the event. Restaurants, schools and cities are among the county's most frequent employers of disabled people.

"We've come from a time when we were shunned and hidden to a time when we almost have full acceptance," said Eve Hendrix, western region director.

Pace's goal at Summit is to place his clients in jobs and erase the stereotypes that cause businesses to shy away from mentally retarded employees. Developmentally disabled workers are an untapped resource.

"A lot of time industry just needs to know how to work with them. Because of that lack of knowledge about the people, they're a little hesitant. But once they get to know them, they open right up," he said.

Roberts' supervisor, Sharon Healey, sometimes has to be stern; sometimes she backs off. As Roberts became adept at bringing water to residents' rooms and supplying them with personal-hygiene items, Healey increased her duties to include shaving.

"She tricked me into shaving," said Roberts, who didn't always have a soft touch with the razor.

"I go, `Dad, I just can't do the shaves.' I'd come home crying every day," she said. Roberts' father let her practice on him.

"Sometimes we had to convince her she was ready," Healey said. Making beds didn't work out because Roberts prefers to interact with patients.

But the responsibility for Roberts doesn't fall solely on the center. Her depression comes and goes. Healey doesn't always have time to tend to her special needs.

Job coach Robert Johns visits Roberts frequently for a few minutes or a few hours, depending on her mood at the time. "She sometimes anticipates when she's going to need extra help," Johns said.

Roberts said Heritage residents and staff have accepted her.

"I love it here. Make sure you put that down. I love it here. The people are good and they work together as a team. And they understand me and that's kind of hard," she said.

Integrating a mentally retarded person into the social aspects of the workplace isn't always easy. Co-workers are hesitant to strike up conversations around the break room table. But Healey said Robert has come to be just another employee. Staff members include in their social circle, inviting her to baby showers and birthday parties.

"She's grown in every way. I can see a big change in her personal life," Garrett said.

Teamwork makes the program succeed. And Roberts recognizes that.

"Make sure you say Shirley and Sharon and Robert and Mr. Pace and my parents brought me this far," she said.