DAYTONA BEACH — Jerry Schwartz knew something was wrong when her first child wasn't sitting up or doing things like other children his age.
While Dennis had been born prematurely, she wasn't prepared when he was a toddler in the late 1940s for a doctor to tell her and her husband that "he's retarded. You should put him in an institution."
"Those days were very, very cruel," the 93-year-old said recently. "It was all I could do to keep my husband from hitting the doctor. This was our baby."
Schwartz, who admits she has a stubborn streak, wouldn't have it. Instead, she and her now late husband, Vance, who founded and owned the jai alai fronton in Daytona Beach, gave him "tender loving care" and "enjoyed him the way he was."
She took the news and began a lifelong passion of improving the lives of people with developmental disabilities.
In 1962, she helped organize the local Association for Retarded Children, now the Arc of Volusia. She founded and was the first president of Work Oriented Rehabilitation Center in Daytona Beach in 1969.
The rehabilitation center, now United Cerebral Palsy of East Central Florida, provides work training and jobs for people with disabilities.
United Cerebral Palsy celebrates its 40th year and will honor Schwartz formally in October. Until recently, Schwartz was active on the board. She still talks to clients who consider her a second mother or grandmother.
"In my mind, she was like the Rosa Parks for developmentally disabled persons in Daytona Beach," said Daniel Remmert, 52, a vocational evaluator for the agency's day training program.
Jim Hall, 58, who is blind and developmentally delayed, was one of the first clients. He still works at the agency's day training program, which contracts with more than 50 companies in the area. About 130 clients do various jobs and receive paychecks at the agency's offices in Daytona Beach and Bunnell. Hall also lives in one of the agency's two group homes.
"She is the kind of lady who has a big heart," Hall said of Schwartz. "She opened an area to us where we could look for a job and we could do something with our life."
Schwartz and her husband were determined when they moved to Daytona Beach in 1958 and found no help for their son.
Dennis Schwartz, who died in 2002 at age 55 and lived at the Duvall Home near DeLand, would sneak out of the house when he was 11 and walk to his sister's elementary school because he wanted to attend classes.
After she was turned down repeatedly, Schwartz got a commitment to turn a storage facility into a special school.