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Rolling Fork facility gives handicapped a hand

The Mississippi Christian Family Services early intervention program concentrates on preparing children with developmental delays for preschool programs. Each child responds differently during afternoon reading time with teacher Connie Mangrum. Three-year-old SaKarra Thompson covers her eyes, as twins Kord and Jordin Jones listen to the story. In the lower photo, men’s group home house parent Travis Williams, left, helps Jerry Williams prepare dinner. Williams shares his living quarters with five other patients at the The Mississippi Christian Family Services in Rolling Fork. Williams will spend the rest of his life at the home. (The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[05/14/01] ROLLING FORK Jerry Williams stood at the kitchen stove, struggling to stir an enormous pan of hamburger meat. The black plastic spoon moved awkwardly in his hand and, from time to time, he nibbled on a stray piece of the hamburger he inadvertently stirred out and onto the counter.

“Jerry, you didn’t just do what I think you did,” fussed Celeste Norris, who stood nearby talking on the phone. “Oh, no,” he said, shaking his head timidly. “Oh, no.” His short, repetitive sentences sound like those of a 4-year-old. “You better go wash your hands and stop eating that,” she admonished.

At 34, Jerry appears too old to put up with such fussing. But his physical appearance belies his mental one. Dressed in short jeans and a gray T-shirt, standing with a slight stoop, he looks like any young man until he speaks. Then his quick words and awkward sentences pair with his slight physical stumbles, and something isn’t right.

Diagnosed as developmentally disabled, Williams shares a home with five other men at Handihaven, a non-profit work and care center in Rolling Fork operated by Mississippi Christian Family Services. The center provides independent living, as well as day activities and work training for mentally and physically challenged children and adults in Sharkey and Issaquena counties. Like the lighthouse that is its symbol, the center offers a safe harbor for those unable to cope on their own; for people like Williams, their only hope at having a normal life.

In the Delta, where poverty is widespread and unemployment high, Handihaven offers a special service for a population where mental retardation rates surge beyond the norm. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates mental retardation at 7 percent of the population. In Mississippi, that figure is 13.7 percent nearly twice the national average. The state trails only West Virginia, Kentucky and Alabama in cases per thousand.

“Jerry can basically do everything,” said Norris, a Rolling Fork native who supervises the group home. She said he remains at Handihaven “because he is so vulnerable, people would take advantage of him someone asks him for $5, he’d give it to them.”

Williams and the rest of the men in the group home share in the evening’s chores. They have to prepare dinner for the group, as well as wash dishes, sweep the floors and dust. The kitchen and living areas are spotless; the men and women friendly and well-behaved. The living room is filled with a mixed group of adults black and white, young and old, tall and short, plump and skinny sitting among comfortable sofas and wing back chairs watching afternoon TV.

The duplex, home to six men on one side and six women on the other, provides semi-independent living. Each side has laundry facilities, a kitchen and family room and individual bedrooms filled with the client’s own furnishings. Williams’ is the model bedroom, Norris said. By budgeting his money, he has bought a bedroom suite, complete with leopard-print bedspread, a wardrobe, DVD player and TV. And like the rest of the facility, it’s spotless. “This is their house and their responsibility to keep it clean,” said Norris.

Most who live in Handihaven do so because their developmental disabilities are often coupled with little family support “families not knowing how to handle a developmental disability,” Norris said.

“There are programs all over the state, in most counties of Mississippi,” said Suzie Evans, executive director of Mississippi Christian Family Services. “This program is unique because it was started by a church as a private, non-profit.” Evans started with the group from the beginning “March 1, 1975,” she said, when the center opened, and worked her way up to executive director eight years ago. “It was a calling for me. Not just a job; it’s a calling,” she said.