Providence Center for disabled marks 50th anniversary

The prospects in 1961 for their severely disabled children — if they could not be in public school programs, they had to stay at home or were institutionalized — led a small band of Anne Arundel County parents to devise an alternative.

They created their own facility, with one family donating a house, for a program for their seven children. The center has long since outgrown that place.

"It's a lot like a field of dreams," said Charles Coble, executive director.

The Providence Center, which is marking its 50th anniversary this fall, now serves about 500 developmentally disabled adults in five locations in the county. It operates on an $8 million annual budget and has its own transportation network.

"We have gone from essentially providing day care in some form or other to really trying to find a way for each of these individuals to thrive and meet the goals they dream of," said Charles Goodman, president of the board.

Programs for mentally and physically impaired adults range from sheltered workshops that provide participants with an income to employment training and job placements in the community. Over more than two decades, Providence's participants have worked at a variety of places, among them car washes, garden centers and fast-food restaurants.

But there are recent changes, as more of the center's participants hold outside jobs and the sheltered workshops have become more of a backstop.

A newly opened technology branch teaches basic computer skills to provide better prospects for employment. Another addition is a program that prompts clients to direct their futures, and then works with them and their families to help them reach goals in employment, housing, leisure time and other aspects of their lives.

Providence Center's artists, supervised by Bart O'Reilly, who is studying for a master's degree at Maryland Institute College of Art, have seen their work exhibited and sold.

Looking ahead, Coble said the center hopes to have a single destination for many of its workshops now dotting the central area of the county and to replace the shrinking government funding with broader financial support.

"We are looking eventually to create a mini Torpedo Factory out of one of our sites," Coble said, referring to an arts center in Alexandria, Va.

"We'd like to combine our pottery, wood shop and arts programs under one large campus and really invite the public in to participate with us," he said.

The big boost would be for Providence's participants. Many have little interaction with the wider community, and Coble said classes open to the public could help build the sort of acquaintance and mentoring networks that other people take for granted, as well as increase their confidence as they head out to workplaces.

Plans call for creating the unified site over five years using Providence's Baldwin Industries property in Arnold, where mailers are currently produced. The property was donated by Frank Baldwin, a brother in one of the founding families. Eventually, Coble said, a greenhouse showing finished horticultural products would be added there; the horticulture program, which produces bay grasses under contracts as well as plants for consumers, is a stone's throw away.

A few stores carry selected goods that Providence's participants fashion in their sheltered workshops — plants, wreaths, woodcrafts, artwork and pottery. The items are also available at the workshops, but the locations are out of the way.

Now, as the nonprofit looks toward sales, it expects to expand into more outlets locally as well as into e-commerce. At the same time, its officials want to add a store, probably at the Arnold location.

Around the wood shop in Millersville on a recent weekday, two dozen people were hand-sanding breadboards, end tables and Noah's Ark animal cutouts.

Nearby, a 29-year-old man in a wheelchair was using a router — a skill he has developed during his eight years at Providence — on what will be the legs of stools.

"This is to smooth the sides down, to make it nice," Jeremy Flowers of Edgewater, who is physically and mentally disabled, said as he ran his fingers over the edge of a stool leg.

The stool goes with a child's Adirondack chair, another of the 34 wooden items made in the shop.

Among the people rolling paint on oval slices that were destined to become the wings of wooden stork flower-stands was one of the original participants. Thomas Baldwin Jr., 61, started in the building his parents donated 50 years ago and returned after attending schools.

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