Tabitha, the second job coach in Helen's room, is younger. Her boyfriend did a tour in Iraq, and while he was gone, she lived with his family. This is her second time working at Arc -- she was a job coach at 18, moved away, then came back, so she's not one of those who, in Orcutt's words, "come in and think it's easier than it is." If Helen is the nun of Arc, Tabitha is the camp counselor who's seen too many strands of toilet paper in the trees and too much salt in the sugar bowl. She's efficient and sarcastic and knowing and reliable, and nobody's going to drown on her watch.
Some 25 job coaches are employed here at any given time, and they move in and out of Helen and Tabitha's room, one at a time, looking for roving consumers, coffee, staplers, or paper towels. Mostly, they're young. Statistically, at least half of them will quit. The national rate of job turnover among caregivers for the mentally handicapped is 50-75 percent a year.
"It's a very emotional job," Orcutt says. "If you take your job seriously, it's a very tough job." Most of the people she hires have worked with or lived with the disabled, Alzheimer's patients, children, or the elderly. Sometimes, she has to fill in with temps. "If they don't look like they're going to be respectful of our consumers, I don't hire them," she says.
A blind, shaved-headed man who looks 14 is holding the little ring from inside the microwave like a tambourine. He shakes it as if it makes a sound so small only he can hear. He touches it to his face, and he rocks.
A 34-year-old consumer named Sarah is sitting meekly in her wheelchair. She has asthma, cerebral palsy, and mild mental retardation, functioning at the level of someone aged 2 to 5. Her black hair has been braided into a plait that reaches her waist, and her nails are Platinum Pink, worn and chipped at the edges. She keeps a white towel on her lap, and occasionally, when her mouth fails her, she uses the towel to dry her chin. Her fingers bend like broken umbrellas.
A man who is six feet five and massive comes toward me with his hand out. He could grind my bones to make his bread. Instead, he lifts up his shirt to show me his belly and says, "Ah way!"
A slender job coach in the corner explains, "That's Jay. He's lost weight. He's telling you he's lost weight."
Jay tells me his name, points to his own chest, shakes my hand, says my name, and then, as if the Arc were his house and he'd invited us all to a grand party, he introduces everyone in the room.
"Ry!" he says, pointing to Brian, the blind one.
"Rah," he says, pointing to Sarah, who smiles sweetly from her wheelchair and says, "Hi."
"Gay-el," he says, leading me to a wide-faced Hispanic man who hugs himself and giggles.
I meet Luz, Pam, and Frank, who have Down syndrome. Frank is sitting by himself, quietly copying words out of a Wal-Mart circular. His handwriting is tall and decorative, like graffiti. "Hi," he says, then goes back to work.
Jay offers me a chair. He points to my shoes and says, "Eye ooz!" He says it again, earnestly happy.
Harry, the slender, bearded job coach, translates. He says Jay likes my shoes. "He has a shoe fetish," Harry says. "I always get compliments on my shoes."
Jay's consonants aren't my consonants, and sometimes there aren't any consonants at all. He's 43 and lives with one family member. At home, he watches TV, takes out the trash, and puts groceries away. His goals in coming to the Arc are independence, clearer speech, the ability to make a sandwich, and an understanding of the value of money, which, at the time of his enrollment some years ago, he tended to give away.
Although this will later seem naïve, I have brought an activity. I have mistaken the Arc center for day care, a place filled with bigger-than-normal children who need something fun to do. So I have brought one of those square looms for making potholders out of stretchy loops, plus a bag of multicolored loops.
Big Jay, the perfect host, is enthusiastic. He wants to pick a color to weave in. He doesn't want to do the weaving itself -- too many fine motor skills are required -- but he likes the colors. Sometimes he identifies red as blue and blue as red. He says, "Red, mine." He points to himself. Then he points to Sarah.
"Rah," he says. He wants it to be her turn. Then he wants me to give everyone a turn. "Ooz." "Ita." "Ram." Sarah, Luz, Conchita, and Hiram. Everyone. That's the rule.
I offer the loom to Sarah. With her outward-curving fingers she delicately, with great deliberation, pulls the crochet hook. Together we manage to snake the loop through. "Thank you," she says.
"Ooz," Jay says, pointing decisively at Luz, a small, timid Hispanic woman with Down's. Her fingernails have been chewed to irregular, inset shapes, like broken cornflakes.
Luz is 33, and for ten years she's spent her weekdays here. Although she graduated from high school, her estimated grade level is below first. She can shampoo her fine black hair, brush her teeth, and write her name. It's not possible to describe each consumer's history in detail because their histories are confidential, but to be in a room at Arc is to be in the presence of concentrated hope and concentrated grief.
X has a boyfriend, is interested in the Special Olympics, and worked for a time folding boxes.
Until Y was two months old, her growth and development were normal, but then she began to suffer from seizures and high fevers.
Z would like a job working at a cash register.
A was given a total hysterectomy at 15.