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Home style: Blessed by a bequest

WHEN MARY KATHERINE Kidd died, she left her developmentally disabled sons - Bill, 64, and Russell, 52 - the Olney rowhouse where they had lived with her all their lives, but she could not leave them the skills to survive there without her.

Russell Kidd ( left) and Robert Slack (right), a caseworker with the ARC (Association for Retarded Citizens) of Philadelphia, discuss the best way to reorganize the refrigerator in Kidd's Olney home.
Russell Kidd ( left) and Robert Slack (right), a caseworker with the ARC (Association for Retarded Citizens) of Philadelphia, discuss the best way to reorganize the refrigerator in Kidd's Olney home.Read more

WHEN MARY KATHERINE Kidd died, she left her developmentally disabled sons - Bill, 64, and Russell, 52 - the Olney rowhouse where they had lived with her all their lives, but she could not leave them the skills to survive there without her.

Their sister, Dottie, a retired hospital worker, looked after them until her own severe health problems stopped her.

In tears, Dottie showed up at the Association for Retarded Citizens (the ARC of Philadelphia), where Russell has attended vocational-training workshops for 30 years, because she had nowhere else to turn.

Two ARC caseworkers inspected the Kidd brothers' house.

"The first thing I noticed was the smell," remembers one of them, Robert Slack. "There was an old, obese dog named Tiny running around with open sores and an arthritic hip, obviously in pain.

"Most of the odor in the house came from Tiny."

Ancient wallpaper was peeling off the walls in strips, Slack said. "There were boxes everywhere, stacked halfway to the ceiling, filled with wires, brochures, wrappers, all this stuff the brothers had found over the years," he said.

"Everything they picked up, they kept. Mice and roaches lived in those boxes."

Slack found eight gallons of milk in the refrigerator, all well past the "use by" date. There was lots of cheese in the same condition that the brothers were eating.

The toilet upstairs flooded chronically and the water had leaked through the dining-room ceiling and walls, which had deteriorated dangerously.

"It was very dark in the house. There was almost no light," Slack said.

"There were stains all over the living-room carpet," he said. "Billy pointed to one of the stains and said, 'That's where she died.'"

Bill and Russell clearly did not have the skills to cope with living independently in the only home they had known since childhood.

When Dottie tearfully appealed to ARC executive director John Felt, she did not know that he had been searching for a way to use a surprise benefactor's $1.4 million bequest targeted specifically at helping people facing the crisis that her brothers were in.

Felt realized that the Kidd brothers were the ideal pioneers to enable the ARC - which has fought since 1948 for the rights of developmentally disabled people to an education, job skills and living-wage jobs - to tackle housing for the first time in its history.

"I almost dropped my teeth when John Felt told me, because I had no idea that such a program existed," said the Kidds' current ARC case manager, John Read.

"Without this program," he said, "Bill and Russell would have experienced a continual decay of their home that would have put their health in jeopardy. Their well-being was at stake."

The ARC's rescue of the Kidd brothers gives hope to hundreds of elderly parents in the city who are afraid that after they die, their developmentally disabled adult children will be unable to care for themselves at home or be forced into institutional living for the first time in their lives.

The ARC planned to move the Kidds into a hotel during the rehabbing of their house but "they were adamant about staying in the house and personally monitoring the progress," Read said.

"All during the rehab, they complained about the loud rock music that the construction guys were playing. Russell said, 'They are here to work, not to listen to music.' These guys are a riot.

They're very opinionated."

Recently, standing in their nearly completed rehabbed home, the Kidd brothers had a lot to say about the missing boxes and furniture that ARC workers had spent a week hauling out of there.

Today, the porch and kitchen have new, green slate floors; the living room and dining room have new, blue wall-to-wall carpeting; the house has a new sofa, new wooden kitchen cabinets, a new stove and microwave oven, and donated wicker dining-room and breakfast-room furniture.

The broken toilet that used to leak through the dining-room ceiling has been fixed, the structural damage has been repaired and the walls have been freshly painted white.

"We want our old stuff back," Russell said, talking rapidly and pointing at the places where the missing pieces used to be. "Tables, back. Lamps, back. Sofa, back. Boxes, back. Everything, back."

"All right, Russell," Slack said gently. "We'll get it back. Some of it. Not all of it."

Considering Slack's proposal, Russell rested his hands on his portable radio, which he houses in a pouch strapped high on his chest.

"You ever see anybody wear it up that high?" Russell's brother Bill asked, smiling. "If he was a woman, he couldn't."

One carton that wasn't removed from the house holds Bill's vintage collection of classic country music on vinyl - Gene Autry's "Back in the Saddle Again," Johnny Cash's "Orange Blossom Special," Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline.

Bill was less adamant than his brother about getting the other old things back. Neither brother mentioned Tiny, who was euthanized.

Russell's below-70 IQ has qualified him for a lifetime of ARC vocational workshops: He repackages Hank's Beverages for transport to big-box stores; he packs furniture for Jacob Holtz Co., and he packs displays and fixtures for Acro Display Inc.

Bill, whose IQ is just above the disabled level, worked most of his life - prepping salads and meats at the Oak Lane Diner for 10 years, doing janitorial jobs at a nursing center for almost eight - until he hurt his back lifting a 55-gallon trash container in 2002. He has stayed home since.

The brothers survive on their dad's old Pennsylvania Railroad pension benefits and Bill's government disability income.

Some things have changed in their "new" digs. Some have not.

The old dog has been replaced by a young cat, Tiger, and her kittens.

The brothers still buy too much milk. On a recent visit, one shelf of the refrigerator held nine half-gallon containers, all but one unopened.

Russell explained that they need the milk because Tiger's kittens drink it and he likes a bowl of breakfast cereal every morning.

The brothers buy too much cat food. More than 100 cans were stacked in the kitchen.

The difference now is that an ARC caseworker will make sure the milk is discarded before it goes bad and will help the brothers shop for more-reasonable quantities in the future.

The main thing, Felt said, is that "Bill and Russell are living in a home of their own, rather than living in a home that someone told them they had to live in."

"Without this new program," he said, "Bill would be in a nursing home and Russell would be in a community-living group home and they would be separated. That's a burden I'm not sure they could handle."

Felt said that Harry B. Scheirer, the unexpected benefactor who left the ARC $1.4 million, was "a visionary" because "he has blessed the lives of people like the Kidds, the most vulnerable people in our community, by giving them the opportunity to live independently.

"We pay their utilities. We do all maintenance and repairs. If Russell or Bill have any issues that compromise their safety or health, each has a pre-programmed cell phone. They push a number and the call gets to the support person, 24 hours a day.

"Developmentally disabled people don't have credit ratings so there's no way they can get a bank card," Felt said. "Wachovia Bank gave the Kidd brothers a card and taught them how to use it for living expenses: food, clothing, the necessities."

The ARC's new focus on housing is a natural extension of its mission, said former board president Gerald Weisman, who has helped developmentally disabled people for 50 years - since the days, he recalled with distaste, when they were called "idiots" and "feebleminded."

"The ARC was always reflective of the civil-rights movement because it was about the right of all individuals to have a decent life," he said.

"Back in the '50s," Weisman said, "parents were pretty much left to the mercy of physicians who almost uniformly were saying, 'You have a child who's never going to be anything, who's going to be such a burden at home. Put him in an institution.' "

The ARC, he said, was founded by parents fed up with the public schools' refusal to educate their mentally retarded children.

For 20 years, before winning a lawsuit against the state in the '70s that opened public schools to the developmentally disabled, ARC parents ran "demonstration programs" at sites such as Smith Playground in Fairmount Park to prove that their children could be and should be educated.

"We found people in the community willing to be the teachers," said Eleanor Elkin, 90, an ARC activist since her developmentally disabled son Richard, now 59, was a little boy. "They were not all accredited teachers but they were all good souls."

One of those good souls was Scheirer - a quiet, self-effacing Quaker from Logan who was a lifelong bachelor with no children.

When he died several years ago, he left the ARC $1.4 million to help the people his heart had gone out to in the '70s by enabling them to live independently.

Now that the Kidd brothers have led the way, ARC is buying and rehabbing more houses that will give developmentally disabled people the gift of living in their own homes.

"It's like spring," Felt said. "Our heads are out of the ground and we're seeing the fruit of our first labors. And it feels good."