At 72, Larry Wong is getting too old to be the parent of a 2-year-old child. But, in a way, that’s what he is.
Though his son Curtis is 31, the younger man stopped developing mentally while he was a toddler. To this day, his father does not know why.
“My son has severe retardation, epilepsy and autism,” said Wong, a retired engineer who lives in Tarzana with his wife, Ann. “He has the mental capability of a child of 1 or 2.”
Still, Wong said he has been blessed with Curtis and blessed with Tierra del Sol, a nonprofit organization funded primarily by the state to take care of mentally retarded adults like Curtis, who spends about 30 hours a week there.
“It’s been fantastic here,” said Wong while attending a parents’ meeting at Tierra del Sol. “They treat the kids here with dignity and respect, and they care so much. I wouldn’t know what I’d do without this place.”
Tierra del Sol, founded 30 years ago, is set on 7 1/2 shady acres in the Shadows Hills area of Sun Valley. The main facility includes several classrooms, a garden, walking trails and a zoo of sorts with pigs, goats, chickens and horses.
Workers provide individualized learning and training programs for nearly 500 adults with various developmental disabilities.
Some of the more capable clients can learn basic skills, and Tierra del Sol now offers employment programs at three sites in the San Fernando Valley.
The goal at Tierra is, if possible, to make the adults less dependent on others and more self-reliant. For some of the clients, however, there is little or no hope of getting a job, of living on their own, of even going to the bathroom alone.
One of those is Curtis Wong.
“It makes me feel good to be with Curtis and help him through his days,” said his one-on-one instructor, Angelica Lozano, 28, who has been at Tierra for three years. “Curtis is fine sometimes, especially when he is walking. But sometimes he doesn’t do well and starts hitting himself in the face.”
Curtis sits against a wall, fidgeting with his green and blue nylon jacket. He doesn’t speak, but Lozano knows he’s ready for his favorite activity -- walking.
He is not allowed to walk alone. Workers say he would probably walk out of the facility and possibly into the traffic on Sunland Boulevard.
As Lozano takes Curtis out for a stroll, her sister, Rosalba Lozano, 31, is tending to others. Some of them stare at walls, some speak, one hums a mournful tune. Another, Roxie, 61, proudly shows Rosalba how she can drop a piece of wadded up paper into a trash can.
“I really love working with people,” said Rosalba, who has been doing this for nine years. “It just makes me feel good. I can’t complain about anything in my own life.”
Another such worker is Jerald Doswell, 42, a program aide, who has been at Tierra for four years.
“My heart is definitely involved with this program,” said Doswell, who earns $8.70 an hour. “My clients are all confined. They can’t do regular, normal things, things most people take for granted. But I help them do those things, and it makes me feel good.”
Standing next to Doswell near Tierra’s ceramics classroom was Tom Miranda, a community integration programmer. His job is to take developmentally disabled adults into the community.
“You’ve probably seen us walking or going to the store,” said Miranda, 50, who moonlights as a limousine driver. “I love taking them out, and they love to go. It’s our goal to teach them how to get around, teach them to gain self-confidence.”
Without help, raising an adult who functions as a 2- or 3-year-old can be a draining ordeal.
“You’re a 24-hour caregiver,” said North Hollywood resident Rose Garcia, 64, whose daughter Teri Lynn, 47, has been at Tierra del Sol for 11 years. Before that, Garcia tried to care for her with little outside help.
“She doesn’t talk,” Garcia said. “She had a compulsive biting habit. She would bang her head hard into the walls when she was 8, and that went for more than 12 years. You try living with that.”
In a room devoted to those who require the most help, a worker was trying to teach Teri Lynn how to spoon food into her mouth. Her right arm had been outfitted with a special rig to help her hold the spoon.
Looking at the scene, Deborah Herstik, Tierra’s performing arts coordinator, shook her head.
“There should be an occupational therapist teaching her that skill,” Herstik said. “But, of course, we can’t afford that.”
Funding is a worry that is growing.
Larry Wong, like thousands of other parents of the developmentally disabled, is deeply concerned that spending cuts proposed by Gov. Gray Davis to balance the state budget will undermine the care his son receives. Davis’ budget proposal would cut $100 million from the Department of Developmental Services.
The department provides nearly all the funding for agencies (there are 140 statewide) like Tierra del Sol. The rest comes from private donations.
Despite the expected budget cuts, members of the staff at Tierra del Sol continue to find satisfaction in their work.
Under one of Tierra’s shady trees, client coordinator Jacquie Williams talked about the “especially good workweek” she was having. Williams just lined up a new program called Pet Orphans which will allow her clients to spend time with dogs and cats that are waiting to be adopted. The contact will help prepare the animals for adoption.
“Our clients are going to love it,” Williams said excitedly. “To know you’re helping someone feel better about themselves, to give them something concrete to do -- well, it’s a great feeling.”