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Mentally retarded need love, financial support

As the sweltering days of summer draw to a close, we await with great anticipation the first cool breeze, harbinger of autumn. Children return to school and other business and social events begin anew with, for whatever reason, the academic calendar. Soon we will receive new real estate assessments and subsequent tax bills, United Way pledge cards, and requests for our discretionary dollars from myriad organizations. The number of requests correlates with the number of needs in a society. We must, therefore, choose where to spend our hard-earned, after-tax dollars. Each of us involved with a not-for-profit organization has his hand out, be it for a cultural, environmental, or charitable cause.

I have been invited to write a guest column concerning the needs of those in our community who have mental retardation. The term mental retardation is not in vogue today because some people prefer developmentally delayed or disabled, or brain injured or damaged. The term mental retardation or mentally retarded is not intended to be pejorative, but to be descriptive.

Programs sponsored by local organizations and others sponsored by agencies financed by the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) daily serve thousands of children. In addition, there are 6,000 children and adults with mental retardation on waiting lists statewide.

Some alarming statistics that face us in the next decade. Twenty-one mentally retarded children are born in the State of Florida each day. Three adults who have mental retardation move to Florida with their parents each day. Cocaine babies are served with the same dollars that provide for the mentally retarded. It is predicted by HRS that the cost to Florida taxpayers will be $1-billion annually by the year 2000.

Many times we think of negative situations; illness, accidents, tragedy, in the realm of others, but not us. But it does happen. They affect all ages, socioeconomic strata, nationalities, etc. They are the great equalizers. They affect all. The people I know who have mental retardation are examples of this. It can happen to you and me. What we do if it does or does not determines how handicapped people are treated. I am reminded of a conversation I had in the late 1970s. I was staffing a volunteer booth at the Special Olympics at the University of South Florida. A young woman came to the tent offering to volunteer. I knew her. She was a schoolteacher, the mother of two boys and surely had other things to do that Saturday morning than to time the 50-yard dash. When I asked why she chose to volunteer that day, she told me everything I already knew. Her boys were bright and healthy. She had been fortunate in her life. She said she was there to give thanks because there, "but for the grace of God, go I." We must repay our good fortune.

In the 20 plus years that I have worked with those people who have mental retardation, I have learned much. From them I have learned it is possible to be honest if you never learned to be dishonest. It is possible to love if you never learned to hate. It is possible to trust if you never learned to distrust. From their parents I have learned to be accepting, to be assertive, to be strong.

We have so many opportunities to become part of someone's life. Do not hold back. Share your love.

Robert C. Lopez is executive director of the Association for Retarded Citizens in Hillsborough County.

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