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They find they can do anything

For 16 years, Susan Benson told her only son that despite his mental disabilities, he could achieve anything if he believed in himself.

It was a year ago that Anthony, 17, followed his mother's advice.

Last year, the Central High senior enrolled in the school's work experience program for the mentally retarded and Mrs. Benson has seen a change in her son ever since.

"He used to be into himself, never talking with people or doing things on his own," she said. "Now he's more self-confident, more outgoing, and when he puts his mind to do something, there's not that hesitation anymore."

She credits the 3-year-old Central program, which stresses responsibility, independence and working skills, for the changes in Anthony. For two hours every weekday, 10 students visit Oak Hill Hospital and Hernando Woods nursing home and help the housekeeping staff in their cleaning chores.

"They're pretty good on helping us get our work done," said Anna Kerr, a housekeeper at Hernando Woods. "You tell them what to do and they go at it. There may be one now and then who gives you trouble, but other than that, they're pretty helpful."

What some might see as free labor _ the students are not paid for their work _ Mrs. Benson sees as a blessing. No longer does she see the introverted and insecure teen who had to be prodded to do a small task.

Vera Yoder, supervisor of the work experience program at Central, said that's the goal of the program: instilling self-esteem in students through their work while teaching them how to relate with others on the job.

"We want employers to be aware that people who have disabilities are just as hard-working and reliable as the next person," Yoder said. "But to prove it, (the students) have to gain confidence first."

The year-round program is divided into two sections. The first half is the hands-on working experience. At the beginning of the second semester, students switch to the community-based instruction program, which teaches them living skills such as washing clothes and buying groceries.

"Ideally, we want them to be as independent as possible," Yoder said. "We know some of them may never be totally independent but at least they will learn as much as they can to about day-to-day living."

Barbara Weiss, assistant administrator at Hernando Woods, said both the students and the residents benefit from the program.

"It seems to work out well because the kids enjoy coming out here, but you don't realize how much their presence makes a difference to the older people," Weiss said.

Since Adeline Werner's only relatives _ three nieces and a nephew _ live in California, the Hernando Woods resident doesn't have many visitors.

"I usually spend my time by myself reading the newspapers and books," said Werner, 83. "The little girl who comes in here to fill the ice (pail) always comes in with a smile on her face and has a few words to say. It's nice that the young people care enough to help out."

Anthony Benson said he enjoys his job of making beds, filling ice bins and meeting residents.

"I like it here, but you know I have to leave soon because it's my last grade," said Anthony, who wants to work as a bag boy at his neighborhood grocery store after he graduates.

Susan Benson said six months after Anthony was born she knew his life would be different. He didn't crawl or reach for things or respond to his mother's voice, like his older sister Denise did. Doctors told her that her son would never read or write, let alone hold a job, because of his mental disability.

Now Mrs. Benson looks forward to the day her son will live on his own thanks to Central's program.

"I hope that day will come real soon," Mrs. Benson said. "My husband keeps saying there will be a day when we won't be here and he won't have us to rely on anymore."