A normal life

The Mustard Seed provides home for developmentally disabled

Daily Republic ©
Published March 26, 2006

VACAVILLE -- For 44-year-old Mark Herring, a man confined to a wheelchair since his youth by the fates, the news of having visitors causes his small brown eyes to beam through his large-framed glasses.

He moans as a sign of affection, since his voice was barred before his first breath of life, and points with the tip of his index finger through the air as he orchestrates his thoughts.

He will never speak or walk on his own, nor will he ever live a life where his daily routines are independent from others.

Instead, Herring will have visitors every day, swarmed by a group of people dedicated to looking beyond the ugliness of life and into the beautiful souls of those with a passion to live.

Herring is developmentally disabled, having endured his last four decades with cerebral palsy, mental retardation and seizure disorder. His mind will never exceed the age of 2, according to doctors, although his longtime friend and caregiver at Mark's Growing Center, Inc., Barbara Weaver, argues the age is 4.

"The doctors don't know Mark. He understands an awful lot, he just doesn't talk," Weaver of Fairfield says adamantly, who has been with him for 21 years. "He knows and does more than people will ever think."

Over the years, Herring has spent time playing with puzzles targeted for preschoolers, but will most likely place pieces in the wrong spot. His love for music and recognition for songs overshadows his juvenile development, however, as he listens to music that kicks up the heels of the country folk.

His mornings are characterized by a daily workout, where he holds a 3-pound weight listlessly in his hand, has breakfast with his five developmentally disabled roommates at their home and gets a chauffeured ride to his job site in Vacaville, all before 8:10 a.m.

What is believed to be credited to the help and love of those surrounding him, Herring exceeded the 25 years of life his mother, Ann Francis, visualized he would endure. But those were the old days, Weaver assures - then again, who is to say what is a life span?

"He's so healthy, he could live to be 100 if he continues like this," Weaver says, then laughs. "He gets all these cute women taking care of him. He's got friends, a social life and he's happy."

What Herring may not understand completely, however, is that it's a happiness inspired by the dreams of his mother.

Follow the yellow brick road

Francis, who died 12 years ago of cancer, was the type of woman that honors were made for; a woman who wouldn't ask someone to do something she wouldn't do herself.

Claire Coding is a job coach at Yellow Brick Road, a specialty gift store that employs developmentally disabled adults, such as Herring, in a workshop setting.

Coding has worked with Herring for the past 21 years, since the days when his mother owned a 10-acre farm off the dirt path of Leisure Town Road in Vacaville. She began as his respite worker at the farm, caring for the 23-year-old man who at the time would practically dress himself, and witnessed the dedication a mother has for her son.

"After he graduated from the Irene Larson School, there was nothing for him to do," she recalls. "He would be out in the country and he would sit on his front porch pointing to the yellow school bus that was not coming anymore. Francis would not let him backslide."

Determined to not let him regress, Francis tilled the acres for farming and invited developmentally disabled folks from PACE, a community-based adult day program intended to assist individuals with acquiring the skills necessary to achieve their highest level of independence, to work at the farm. She even went so far as to give them a place to live on her property, known as The Mustard Seed.

Within time, myriad vegetables were grown, and Francis had the best tomatoes in town, Coding declares. She knew just the right time to plant the seeds.

Given that Herring took an immediate dislike to farming, Francis converted her horse barn into a wood shop, where they made music boxes, baby doll cradles and high chairs. She would wake at sunrise to help paint the wooden products and continue on past midnight, Coding recalls fondly of Francis.

"We had so many products that we needed a place to sell them. That's how this place came about," Coding says matter-of-factly and then mentions the farm shut down 10 years ago.

Coding, a woman whose motivation rests with the need to make others feel important, needed and protected, is also one of several assistant managers at Yellow Brick Road.

To some, folding towels or making small packets, a job this group of adults perform for nominal wages, is a meaningless venture. But to those who yearn for a normal life, the money they garner, though trifle it may be to a few, is priceless.

"We just need to get more clients here at the shop, we don't have enough for our workers," she says, whose clients currently include local beauty salons and CHP. "Everyone needs to be productive and we have a place to provide that."

Planting seeds at home

Everyone says grace before dinner.

The evening is somewhat cold outside as the The Mustard Seed house, a nonprofit place decorated tastefully with donated items by local folks, remains warm.

The place, spacious enough to allow ample access for two wheelchairs, is located near downtown Vacaville, ever since the farm was sold and a new property purchased.

It houses six clients, as protocol refers to them by name, each with a duty in the house. Tonight it's Herring 's job to set the table before dinner.

Robin Williams, spelled just like the actor Weaver says, is waiting in the living room as "The Oprah Winfrey Show" airs from a TV. Like Herring, he is confined to a chair, and is developmentally disabled.

"Are you going to sit with us?" someone asks him from the kitchen.

Williams thinks for a moment and takes a breath before speaking. He puckers his lips delicately, has a small hesitation, then says, "I'm waiting for Mark to set the table!"

In this particular group, comprised of four men and two women, Williams has been with Herring the longest.

"Ann looked around and thought Robin would be perfect for Mark, he had a friend that just made him happy. He makes Mark laugh and that was the best thing Ann could have done for him," Weaver says, who is also the resident manager at the house.

Williams, wearing thick black shoes and white socks, gives off an infectious laugh, one that sneaks out every few minutes. It's a laugh that could make even a guard at Buckingham Palace crack a smile.

Inside the kitchen, where patience is served with each meal, Weaver asks Herring for a fork.

"No, that's a spoon. Can you hand me a fork?" she says with love in her eyes for this man she treats like a son.

By now, 40 minutes into preparation and with "Lady and the Tramp" meatball heroes on each plate, the six are ready to eat around the oblong table. They are joined by Tammy Douglas and Laura Free, direct care staff members.

"Would you be proud of me if I did my prayers?" asks Janice McCaullum, one of the clients in the house.

"I'm always proud," Weaver replies.

"I want to thank everyone here and the staff for making sure we're happy. And making sure we get fed. And thanks for feeding us, Amen," McCaullum says.

Disability is not contagious

There was a time when people thought they could "catch" disability.

Inside the Vacaville PACE facility, a room filled with people of different disabilities carrying promising attitudes, Herring sits with a group of folks and plays "Attack Uno."

He is prone, every now and then, to have a grunt escape his breath, which is quickly followed by a smile. It's obvious if Herring could talk, his voice would be as deep as a ditch.

Across from him is Williams, merrily enjoying his few winnings at the game. Two other clients from The Mustard Seed, Marjorie Jackson and Norman Ellis, are also in the facility, relishing in other activities. Ron Lewis, the fourth male client at the "Seed," stayed home today. His eye was quite red and itchy.

Trisha Paxton, a PACE van driver who has been working with Herring for three years, walks by and gives the man with a large smile a hug. Herring holds her arm and refuses to let go. He knows who she is and knows the adoration she has for him.

Just the day before, Paxton took Herring and a few others to Target, where Herring purchased a light brown teddy bear with the $6 in his pocket.

"He collects bears and he loves them," the Vacaville resident says and smiles.

Across the table, PACE worker Dana Thompson says in a gentle voice, "Robin, you can say 'Uno!' Hooray!"

Robin takes his deep breath, puckers and repeats her words, "Uno!"

For Thompson, working at PACE is like no other job. It's a place where "a lot of people are happy to see me," she says.

Make no mistake, this facility and its clients do not demand pity from the public. For these folks who are developmentally disabled, a cluster of people who have been ridiculed by a few in the public as being retarded or needing to be institutionalized, their wants are simplistic and attainable.

"They want the same thing you want, whatever every other adult wants," Thompson says. "They want jobs, they want to feel like they're doing something important. They put Bingo packets together and they get paid for it and they go home and say 'I did my job.'

"It's important that their lives are as normal as possible. They want to laugh, be able to go to the movies and to see sports. They just want to be happy," she says before going off to help them with lunch.

Reach Andrea E. Garcia at 427-6935 or agarcia@dailyrepublic.net.