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Handicapped but Gifted Adults Get Anaheim Fine Arts Campus

Times Staff Writer

Paul Kuehn, a blind drummer and singer for Hi Hopes, opened the video: “We’re mentally retarded. We represent all handicapped people.”

Crowding into their storefront Anaheim school, the crew from Hi Hopes had their eyes glued to a TV set as they watched themselves perform in a promotional video for Hope University.

Despite having seen the tape many times before (each member has a copy at home), they seemed to never tire of hearing the story they call “the impossible dream.”

Gloria Lenhoff, a mentally retarded 31-year-old who can sing operatic arias in five languages, sat near the TV set earlier this week, watching herself explain why she wants a college for herself and other mentally retarded adults who are artistically gifted. To play music, to rehearse, to learn new things, she explained.

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“And we got it,” Bill Ouderkerken, also a singer, chimed in while listening to Lenhoff’s comments.

Last week, the Anaheim City Council approved a fine arts campus dedicated to serving developmentally disabled adults who are artistically gifted. Approval for locating Hope University-UNICO National College in the Anawood area, however, came despite vehement protests from the neighborhood, whose residents said a school would bring noise and traffic and devalue their properties.

To Doris Walker, Hope executive director, the opposition is a form of betrayal to a group that has been singing in the community--and across the country--for 14 years. Hi Hopes is one of several performing groups in the college, an offshoot of a program that started under the Anaheim Union High School District.

The group includes many success stories--such as Kuehn, a blind, retarded man who never spoke in his special high school class until Walker, then a teacher in the Anaheim school district, asked the class what key a chord was in. “Key of G, Mrs. Walker,” he responded.

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“I couldn’t believe it,” she said of the student who had kept silent until then. Kuehn had been listening to her describe each chord before playing it, she explained. And the young man who had “a terrible voice” now has a deep, rich baritone voice. He wins over his audiences wherever the group plays, including performances at Disneyland and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and in Washington, D.C. Another Hi Hopes success story is Gary Ahearn, now 39, who spent--"wasted” is how Walker describes it--more than 20 years in a board-and-care home until a teacher discovered that he could play an instrument.

Ahearn has been able to play any instrument he picks up, Walker said.

For Walker, 60, a grandmotherly type whose gray hair is swept up in a bun and whose demeanor exemplifies that of a patient and persevering teacher, the nine-member group is composed of nine miracles. Each member is special, as are the 28 other Hope University students in the Discovery Twirlers (a square-dancing group) and the Variety Show (which features various performances).

They are a talented lot with special needs, she said. And as well-behaved young adults, she said, they will not create noise in their new home.

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“I hope that they (the neighbors) will give us a chance,” Walker said.

Walker and others have questioned whether discrimination against those who are mentally retarded played a role in the protests.

But the Anawood neighbors deny that their complaints stem from prejudice.

“It’s the easiest thing in the world to say we were prejudiced against retarded people,” resident Marilyn Richey said. The issue, she said, is land use.

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The college this summer will move from two rooms in the back of the Brookhurst Center mall to what is now the Euclid Street Baptist Church. Officials anticipate that this first campus, which will include an eight-unit apartment complex, will become a model for others across the country.

Financing for the move is a gift from UNICO (Unity, Neighborliness, Integrity, Charity and Opportunity) International, the largest Italian-American service organization in the country. In exchange for the 2.9 acres at 1408 S. Euclid St., UNICO plans to give the church, which is not associated with Hope University, between 30 and 40 acres of land at an undisclosed site in Anaheim Hills to build a new sanctuary and school.

About eight years ago, the 24-year-old church opened an elementary school, which grew through the years to about 250 students and expanded with a preschool and day-care services.

At least one neighbor began complaining about noise emanating from the school in 1982, city officials said. Since then, the number of opponents grew, and pressure increased to bring a hush to the playground. Then the neighbors learned that the church was on its way out and that Hope University was on its way in. With another school slated for the site, the neighbors’ complaints became louder.

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City officials, including Anaheim’s city attorney, said the church never acquired the necessary permits for its elementary and preschool. The city Planning Commission had ordered the church to close its school by June 30--an order the City Council rescinded.

The council agreed with church officials, who responded that their church permit allowed church-related activities, which they said included their private Christian school. Also, a July, 1976, letter from a former planning director gave the church the go-ahead to open community day care without any additional permits, argued Gregory W. Sanders, an attorney for the church. Another letter dated June, 1984, also from the former planning director, said there would be “no problem” in opening Hope University at the church site, Sanders said.

Question of Where

But the residents surrounding the church--some of whose homes abut the property--did not buy the arguments. Neither did Councilman Ben Bay, the lone official to vote against Hope University’s move to the neighborhood.

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The issue, Bay said, agreeing with the church’s neighbors, is land use: “It had nothing to do with who and what. It had everything to do with where.”

But because the issue involved a school for mentally retarded people and a church whose pastor, Bryan Crow, has been involved in the community for decades, the land-use issue was placed aside, Bay said. To vote against the church-Hope University proposal, Bay said earlier this week, “was like voting against motherhood and apple pie.”

Bay also agreed with the Anawood residents that the church should close its school by July, as mandated by the Planning Commission. But he was the only one. The other four council members agreed to overturn the commission’s decision and voted to grant the church the three-year phase-out that they requested for the elementary school.

“I couldn’t understand why it went on, because it was illegal,” Bay said of the church’s school. Extending permission for the school to exist another three years and then allowing a college in the same site only compounds the problems, Bay said. “It has almost unbelievable impact to the neighbors.”

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Looking at Options

And the residents surrounding the church said they are “not going to lie down and take it,” according to Corinne Newell.

The residents, who collected about 400 signatures against the proposal, said they are considering different options to show their displeasure with the council’s decision. Mayor Pro Tem Irv Pickler said he has already heard from a few of the disgruntled neighbors, who promised him that this would be his last year as a councilman.

To those involved with Hope University, the reaction from neighbors has nothing to do with noise, traffic or other arguments. It’s prejudice.

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Joyce Malugeon, mother of Hi Hopes member Mikki Davis, said: “I don’t think it came as a surprise. We’re pretty used to prejudice. That’s just something that is a fact of life when you have a mEnTally retarded child.”

W. B. (Patt) Patterson, a Hi Hopes volunteer from Pomona for about three years, agreed that the controversy is founded in discrimination: “I just can’t believe that in America today we have that sort of thing.”

“I think eventually the Anawood neighbors will take them into their hearts and will forget that this ever happened,” said Malugeon, a Cypress resident. For her daughter, Mikki, 27, (a second daughter, 25, is a psychiatric technician), becoming a member of Hi Hopes “made a tremendous difference.”

“Being in Hi Hopes has given her a whole new life. It’s given me a whole new life. Because if she’s happy, I’m happy,” Malugeon said.

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Got Hooked on Group

Working with Hi Hopes and the other groups of mentally retarded people in the university has also affected Patterson, a retired engineer who, along with his wife, Winifred, works and travels with Hi Hopes.

Winifred said the couple got hooked on group members after hearing them perform once. “We heard them play. Doris (Walker) was running everything at the time. And my husband said, ‘Maybe I can help them with their sound.’ And I said, ‘Now don’t get involved. I’m getting ready to retire.’ ”

Patt Patterson and one of his sons helped to rebuild the group’s sound system. Patterson began working with the group regularly, and his wife joined him shortly after--after she retired.

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Jo Ann Quak, a music therapist at Hope, has a similar story. She heard the students performing while she was still a student at California State University, Long Beach. “I said to myself ‘I want to work with those students someday.’ ” Quak said. “They inspired me (then) and they still do.”

Quak said music can be used to achieve non-musical goals. Singing, for example, helps the students with their posture, their breathing, their diction. In turn, speaking more clearly helps the students’ self-image. And confidence in one area transfers to confidence in other areas--such as the handling of money, “which is very difficult for some of them,” Quak said.

Work With Whole Person

“We work with the development of the whole person,” she said.

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For example, Quak said, when she first started working with Gary Ahearn (the adult who had spent more than 20 years in a board-and-care home before anyone realized his talent), “I couldn’t even carry out a conversation with him. His attention span was so poor. . . . He wouldn’t even give me eye contact.”

Reconstructive surgery corrected Ahearn’s malformed jaw, and teachers worked with him on his walking, posture, eye contact and diction.

Today, he may fall under the category known as “idiot savant” (from a French word for learned or well-informed).

“Music ability, most people agree, is an uncommon skill, unrelated to most other talents. One can be a musical genius and yet be inept in other areas of life,” according to an article in January’s issue of Music Educator’s Journal.

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