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The good, the bad, the ironic

After 20 years of helping the retarded in Pasco, Emile Laurino is used to the emotional roller coaster. Last week had him soaring and sinking, laughing and crying.

First, the good news. After years of fighting in federal court, advocates won a settlement that will allow more than 2,000 developmentally disabled adults and children to move out of large state institutions and into smaller group homes. That goal is what prompted the Association for Retarded Citizens/Pasco to change its name recently to the Center for Independence Inc., of which Laurino is executive director.

The center and ARC/Florida believe that developmentally disabled people lead more fulfilling, productive lives in community-based settings. And they point out that the average cost to the state for clients in small homes is $20,000 annually, compared with $80,000 for institutions.

That is significant money in a state that ranks dead last in the nation in the amount it spends on the retarded.

Which brings me to the bad news.

Unless Laurino comes up with $35,000 in three months, he will be forced to shut down the APPLE preschool, which serves 50 babies and toddlers at the center's headquarters in Holiday and a satellite in San Antonio.

"It is a shattering experience," Laurino said last week, in between trips to Tallahassee, where he lobbied legislators. "I feel like a part of me is going."

Laurino sat at a table with his wife, Marie, at their home in Gulf Harbors in 1982 and created the APPLE program. It stands for Awareness for Parents and Preschoolers in a Learning Environment. It started with 10 children and vaulted three years ago with aid from a federal money pool for early intervention programs known as "Part H." Unfortunately, Laurino explained, the program ran at a deficit each year.

"We got a call in February from the state (Department of Children and Families)," Laurino said. "They asked us to provide the services for nothing. They think we can get it from the community. This is not a rich community."

In Pinellas County, the lost money could be made up from donations or the Juvenile Welfare Board, which is tax-supported. Pasco voters rejected a similar welfare board twice. The campaign against the tax initiative boosted the political profile of Mike Fasano, who is now a state representative and, ironically, the person trying hardest to help Laurino solve his crisis.

"Mike has been terrific," Laurino said. "'And yes, I recognize the irony."

APPLE costs the Center for Independence about $500,000 a year to run, Laurino said, and it amounts to less than one-third of the center's overall program. So why not take the money needed from one of the adult programs, such as job training or respite care?

"You can't shift funds," Laurino said. "That is the part of the job that is most frustrating. Just give me a pot of money and let me spend it. I guarantee you the one place we wouldn't shortchange is early intervention."

It remains possible that the Pasco school district will figure a way out of the problem. APPLE prepares children up to age 3 for entry into the school system. And Laurino hasn't given up on the Legislature.

"Everybody keeps saying it's only $35,000," he said Wednesday morning as we watched from behind a two-way mirror while APPLE teachers sang, "Row, row, row your boat" with a roomful of toddlers. "But I don't have it. This is not a game.

"It makes me sick to think we may lose this."