50 Years Later, Worcester County Developmental Center Serving 85 Clients

50 Years Later, Worcester County Developmental Center Serving 85 Clients
Former Maryland First Lady Yumi Hogan is pictured visiting the Worcester County Developmental Center during a previous trip to the lower shore. Submitted Photo

OCEAN PINES – For 50 years, the Worcester County Developmental Center (WCDC) has helped local people with intellectual disabilities find meaningful employment, gain independence, and increase their self-worth.

WCDC’s headquarters is in Newark, and the center also operates seven group homes in Ocean Pines.

Executive Director Jack Ferry is an Ocean Pines homeowner. Ferry said the center first opened in September 1973.

“The center was started by families who saw that there was nothing for their adult children after they got out of school,” Ferry said. “At the time, there really wasn’t anything in Worcester County for individuals with disabilities, and they needed activities for them to do.”

Fifty years ago, WCDC had nine clients. Today, they have about 85.

“There also were no residential homes at that time, and now we have 14 operating homes throughout Worcester County, and one more that will be opening within the next couple of months in Ocean Pines,” Ferry said.

Ferry said clients are referred to WCDC by the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Administration, a state agency that oversees and licenses the center, and provides funding.

All the clients have intellectual disabilities, and many also have secondary issues including physical disabilities and other medical issues.

The original WCDC building in Newark burned down in 2007. Ferry said it was a blessing in disguise that fortunately happened on a day when no clients were in the building.

“It was an in-service day, so there were no clients and only a couple of staff there, and luckily nobody got hurt. At that time, it was an 87-year-old single-story schoolhouse that was crumbling,” Ferry said. “So, they were able to build a brand-new center and today we’re able to do so much more because of that.”

Ferry started working for WCDC in 2008 and became the executive director in 2014. He’s aided by a staff of 144 and supported by state and federal Medicaid programs.

He said the clients are so successful “because of our hard-working, dedicated, talented staff.”

Those workers, he added, also help boost the local economy.

“Last year, our budget was $6.3 million. That’s all-new dollars that we’re bringing into Worcester County, and about 80% of our funding goes into staff salaries,” Ferry said. “That’s money that our staff are using to buy groceries and rent homes or pay mortgages and things like that. So, we’re bringing a significant amount of money into the county.”

About a decade ago, the center was a vital part of the resort industry, with clients helping to run a linen laundry service that served many Ocean Pines restaurants and hotels. A lawn-care service was also utilized by many in the Ocean Pines community, and clients also worked for a catering service through WCDC.

More stringent federal guidelines shuttered those programs around 2016. Ferry admitted it was a difficult transition.

“When we sold our laundry equipment and I watched it going out the building, I had tears in my eyes, because that was such a tremendous program,” he said. “Not only were we able to hire our clients, but we had so much business that we worked with the Worcester County schools, with their special ed department and their summer school, and we even hired some of their students. We also hired clients from other agencies, so we had a lot of people involved.”

Now, WCDC operates in part as a center for the arts.

“When we found out we weren’t going to be successful in fighting the federal changes, we sat down and we thought about what we were going to do next,” Ferry said. “The work we had been doing was significant, and it was also something that set us apart. We had a variety of jobs where we could train clients to have them work and earn a paycheck.

“We were looking for two things. One, what’s going to be best for our clients and, two, what’s going to set us apart and keep us a little bit different, so that we stand out so that we can attract more people and grow,” he added.

Ferry said almost all clients struggle to communicate in one way or another. Some have physical limitations and others have intellectual difficulties.

“We tried to think about nonverbal ways for our clients to communicate. And we said, through the arts, everybody can do that,” he said. “We looked into it a little bit and decided that’s what we’re going to do. So, we become a center for the arts and the clients are having a great time.”

WCDC partnered with the Art League of Ocean City, with clients able to visit for classes, or attend remotely through online programs like Zoom.

“That’s been a nice relationship,” Ferry said.

While Ferry is unhappy that some of the center’s prior programs are no longer viable, he said the timing was extremely fortuitous.

“I think it was a case of God watching over our clients, but also you kind of make your own luck,” Ferry said. “When COVID hit, it was very fortunate that we were becoming a center for the arts. If we had still been doing work at the center, all of that would have been gone.

“Because of the change in focus, we were able to keep our doors open and provide support for the clients,” he continued. “Our staff would pack up two weeks’ worth of art supplies, drop them off at the client’s houses, and we would do Zoom lessons with them either through the Art League or through our staff here. So, we actually did OK during COVID because we were able to keep our clients very active and engaged because we had made those changes.”

Along with helping clients learn how to communicate better through the arts, Ferry said jobs programs continue to be a major focus of the center.

“Our goal is to help everybody get a job in the community who wants a job,” he said. “We have a job coach who will help them find a job, and then follow along with them to make sure they’re able to do that job properly.”

Ferry said working for WCDC has been one of the most rewarding experiences of his life, and that feeling is shared by many of his staff.

“When we have an in-service day and the clients aren’t here, everybody just feels like something is missing. You really miss their life and their vitality, their energy, their enthusiasm,” Ferry said.

“I’ve been in this field for 30 years now, and they teach me more every day than I’ve taught any of them in 30 years. They’re just the best people in the world,” he continued. “They love to learn, they love to be active, they love to be engaged. And it just really is a joy and a pleasure to be able to work with them.

“I always like tell our new staff, ‘You’re gonna have the best job in the world. And you know why? You’re gonna be able to go home at night and get a good night’s sleep because what you did today made somebody else’s life better,’” Ferry said. “I can’t think of a better job than making somebody else’s life better and helping somebody who appreciates it and somebody who just needs that little bit of help.”

Ferry said the Worcester County Developmental Center is always in need of financial support, as well as local businesses and nonprofits to partner with.

“If people have businesses that they think can work with us, we’re always looking for new opportunities for our clients,” he said. “Any way that we can get them involved in the community is a plus. We’re also hoping to restart our volunteer programs where our clients would go out and volunteer in the community very soon.”

For more information or to donate, visit www.wcdcservices.org or email [email protected].