East County Training Center helps developmentally challenged thrive
By Karen Pearlman
, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Thursday, July 29, 2010 at midnight
EL CAJON — Philadelphia
native Bob Paul Guthrie opens his cell phone to pass along the telephone numbers of his brother in San Diego
and his sister in Riverside.
He meanders freely about the Internet, using the social networking site Facebook
to find friends without hesitation.
The longtime East County resident has no reservations about speaking with politicians, even chatting up congressional hopeful Ray Lutz about issues that matter to him.
He has wonderful recollections of his 27 years on the job at Doetsch Enterprise Suspension Systems in El Cajon and speaks lovingly about his first job, working as a janitor for the defunct Valley News.
You’d be hard-pressed to believe that the 68-year-old spent seven years of his youth fearing for his safety in a Washington state mental institution and being bullied at two foster homes in California
But it is, and was, Guthrie’s reality.
Monday afternoon in front of a crowd at The Arc of San Diego’s East County Training Center, Guthrie seemed anything but fearful as he shared compelling stories of his painful teenage years, and how he overcame rejection, neglect and abuse to find happiness and independence.
The Arc of San Diego serves 2,500 people in the county, empowering, teaching and offering a range of services to those in need.
Guthrie, who is developmentally disabled, is an Arc of San Diego board member and Arc client. On Monday, he gave a rousing speech along with Janice Wagner and Danny Jacobson, who were also institutionalized at one time, as part of the Arc of East County's celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The program began with the Pledge of Allegiance, led by Alpine’s Donny Harris, and was followed by a series of thoughtful speakers. There was a collective thanks to legislators who support the ADA, messages from the local speaker’s group “Voices of People First,” musical numbers, poetry readings, tribute speeches about role models and a discussion with the People First legislative advocacy group.
“No one ever said what I was,” Guthrie said, referring to his disability. “I just always heard ‘mentally challenged.’ I never wanted anyone to label me, just to accept me for me.
“I lived in foster homes where people told me I would never live on my own. I proved them wrong. I was employed for many years, and I’ve been able live on my own with my black-and-white dog, Samantha. And I’m becoming more and more independent. I’m doing all right.”
Guthrie, who earlier this year underwent neck and back surgery, said his parents sent him to live in institutions and that he had no contact with his family for decades.
“I didn't know where they were,” he said of his family. “I finally did get to see my mother in the 1990s. We were able to have a family reunion at The Bread Basket in Alpine, and my mom told me then that God really answered her prayers. Later I was finally able to contact my father, who eventually died from Parkinson's disease. We never did get to talk about the past, but at least I was able to bring him a gift for Father’s Day. I just wanted to let him know that I was proud to carry his name, to let him know that I do exist.”
Guthrie said a positive attitude and strong belief in God have been instrumental in his ability to heal and to move on.
“I have a good relationship with myself,” Guthrie said. “And I’ve overcome any anger toward my father.”
He said his future plans include “being my own hero” and being a role model for others, as well as helping other developmentally challenged men and women become better advocates for themselves.
That was a major theme at Monday’s celebration, held at the Arc facility and arranged by Mike Wasyliw, the area director for The Arc of San Diego.
Wasyliw spoke about the importance of the Lanterman Act, which was passed in 1969. Frank Lanterman wanted a better life for those with developmental disabilities than to live locked away from the rest of society.
“He wanted to see services for people with disabilities, living in a community, working in a community, contributing to a community and to make sure they don’t end up in state institutions,” Wasyliw said.
Lutz, a candidate in the 52nd Congressional District, had lunch with many of the Arc clients. He described the event as “heartwarming.”
“This was a great presentation and very effective, learning about what they’ve been through and learning from others in their own words,” he said.
Guthrie does speaking engagements with fellow Arc member Gail Persky at area elementary schools, hoping to enlighten children about the need for understanding for those who are different and have different needs.
He said he is hoping to carry those messages to area high schools, where hurtful words and actions sometimes become overwhelming.
“We have to overcome things like discriminating against people, and we need to catch bullying before it happens,” Guthrie added.