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Cheer, don't jeer, UPARC efforts

Re: Vandals damage Palm Harbor group home site, story, Jan. 24.

The vandalism reported on the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens home in Wilshire Estates made sensational press, but the associated threats endured by the UPARC staff were not adequately reported. Nor was the Florida courts' mandate to properly house the mentally disadvantaged of the state of Florida.

UPARC, a shining example of advocacy for those who cannot speak for themselves, deserves better than the criticism, threats and vandalism, as they make life livable for the mentally disadvantaged of our community. It is understandable that homeowners demonstrate concern regarding the safety of their families and the value of their property, but resorting to physical retribution is not a method to express those concerns.

New neighbors are a concern for most families, but most good neighbors also attempt to get to know someone before perceptions are developed. If differences arise, they are generally resolved by peaceful and cooperative means. UPARC group homes make good neighbors, with support from the community. The staff at UPARC has experienced the sensitivity of the issues raised by the residents of Wilshire Estates and should take all possible steps to ease their concerns. In the meantime, the focus should remain with the five or six UPARC clients anticipating their new home.

UPARC clients are citizens who fervently wish to live and work in our community, which is the basic right of all men and women. Many of us recall when individuals with mental handicaps were either sheltered in the homes of their parents or warehoused in some institution with high fences and locked doors. In the last 50 years, with proper therapy and training, many of these disadvantaged people have come to live productive lives, while attending schools, holding down jobs and living independently. Because of agencies such as UPARC, they now have hopes and dreams, just as all men and women in this great country of ours.

Mental retardation affects approximately 5 percent of our population. Many of us, if not directly affected, have friends or neighbors who are affected. The dedication of these individuals is notable and an example of true love. What if it were our family whose retarded son or daughter was fortunate enough to move into a new group home, then got jeered and harassed by the neighbors? What if you were the lone aging or dying parent of a middle-aged child on the waiting list of 200, only to discover that your dear child was scheduled to move into a group home surrounded by unfriendly neighbors? What if the shoe was on the other foot?

The Florida courts, in their wisdom, have ruled that all citizens are entitled to a safe and decent place to live and call home. This ruling specifically excludes "warehousing," such as in large facilities, dormitories, etc. Our tax money has been appropriated to implement this directive. Now it's up to the citizens of Pinellas County to work with the agencies, such as UPARC, to make it happen.

May cool heads and wisdom prevail.

_ Francis X. Putrow is an honorary member of the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens board of directors and lives in Clearwater.

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