When Maria Odio Di Liberto was married in March, she could not afford to invite all of her clients at the Burbank Center for the Retarded, where she is program supervisor of the children’s and adults’ extended day-care programs. So she held a separate wedding reception at the center, complete with cake and dancing.
Before her marriage, she hosted weekend sleep-overs at her home for teen-age girls, and one year escorted two developmentally disabled couples to their public high school senior prom to ensure they had a memorable, problem-free evening. She and her husband, Frank, take some of her charges on movie and baseball outings; she also occasionally plans birthday parties for them.
Di Liberto began her career at the center as a volunteer in 1980, while a student at Cal State Northridge working toward a teaching credential. She joined the staff as a part-time employee in 1982, leading youngsters in science, crafts and musical activities, and was hired full time after her graduation in 1986.
“I’ve always loved children, but this is something I never thought about going into. It just happened--it came out of volunteering,” says Di Liberto, one recent 100-degree Tuesday at her base at the First Christian Church in Burbank. “I saw how genuine these people are. They’re caring; they have no prejudice.”
Di Liberto’s clients are ages 5 to 50. Their disabilities include autism, cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, attention deficit disorder and emotional problems. “We always remember they’re people first, whether children, teens or adults,” she says. “They have challenges. But their capabilities are higher than we were educated to believe. There are no boundaries.”
As part of that philosophy, Di Liberto looks for ways, large and small, to expand her charges’ horizons. To foster independence and a sense of integration in the community, she trains older students to ride MTA buses. She has taken interested clients hot-air ballooning, and to karaoke venues and art festivals. And she encouraged student participation in trying to change the annual Christmas program, the center’s major fund-raising event, from its usual presentation of Christmas carols to something unique.
“One year, a student came in singing, ‘What a difference a day makes,’ ” she recalls. The student had heard the song on a commercial for a men’s clothing chain. “I thought, what a great idea it would be to have a fashion show. The program director contacted the store for the song, the guys raised money for tuxes, and the girls went to thrift shops for gowns. Another time, we had an ‘Aladdin’ show. The parents went all out.”
Making that family connection is one reason Di Liberto prefers working at the center to a school setting. Interacting with parents also affords her the opportunity to help sever apron strings that can limit students’ potential, as was the case of the couples who wanted to attend their senior prom.
“The parents said, ‘They’re not going.’ The parents were scared that the students would be ridiculed, they wouldn’t fit in,” she says. “The social part is one of the most frightening things for parents. So we worked on table manners and role-playing conversations, and they went. I think most of the students don’t fit in because they are sheltered, not because they can’t.”
Longtime program coordinator Marti Engele says, “I was the first person Maria talked to when she applied as a volunteer. I thought, ‘Oh, here’s this up voice.’ She’s always been cooperative and inventive.
“She’s taken her lumps when students have gone out of control with combative behavior, but she responds with even more love and interest and determination. She’s always doing something to make the students proud of themselves. She’s the teacher that those parents and family of disabled sons and daughters dream of.”
Di Liberto is self-effacing about her efforts. “I look at myself as a tool, a creative tool to try approaches that will help [clients] do what they want to do,” she says. “I never say ‘no,’ never say ‘die.’ I was a volunteer with the Special Olympics, and I think of their motto: ‘How far is far? How high is high? We’ll never know, until we try.’ ”
* This occasional column tells the stories of the unsung heroes of Southern California, people of all ages and vocations and avocations, whose dedication as volunteers or on the job makes life better for the people they encounter. Reader suggestions are welcome and may be sent to Local Hero Editor, Life & Style, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.