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Victoria man finds success in life, love despite disability (video)

By JR Ortega
July 28, 2012 at 2:28 a.m.
Updated July 29, 2012 at 2:29 a.m.

Ray Strickland, 45, sweeps the Speedy Stop parking lot on a hot summer's day as part of his daily duties. Gulf Bend Center negotiated employment for Strickland with Speedy Stop. He has been working there for nine years.

HOME AND COMMUNITY-BASED SERVICES PROGRAM ELIGIBILITY REQUIREMENTS

No age limit.

Must not be enrolled in another Medicaid waiver program.

Must have had a determination of mental retardation made in accordance with state law or have been diagnosed by a physician as having a related condition.

Must meet specific requirements for IQ.

Must have chosen the HCS Program over the Intermediate Care Facilities for Persons with Mental Retardation Program.

Have an individual plan of care that does not exceed a specific annual cost limit.

SOURCES: Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, dads.state.tx.us

The nearby roar of lunch-hour traffic muffled gritty sounds of hard plastic and pebbles being swept into a dustpan.

Ray Strickland shuffled along, broom in hand, beads of sweat seeped from his blue trucker cap.

"I forgot a piece a trash," he said. Pulling up his black Speedy Stop slacks, he gave the broom a gentle shove, sweeping up a cigarette butt.

Though the job is tiring, it pays the bills, and it's also part of life the 45-year-old never imagined himself having.

That's because for a man with an IQ of 68 because of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, having a job means something special -- independence.

He owes his independence to the Home and Community-Based Program through Gulf Bend Center.

"I'm happy I, at least, have a job," he said.



10 A.M.

Before going to work, Strickland had been at H-E-B, weaving in and out of aisles in air-conditioned bliss.

As usual, he had a friend with him -- a Gulf Bend Center employee. It was the customary Tuesday ritual, he drove the cart and the employee strutted right alongside, not only holding the money, but also the grocery list.

"I don't know how to pick onions," Strickland said in a nervous, quick stammer. He flexed his large hands and made them into fists, grinding his knuckles back and forth.

Standing more than 6-feet tall, Strickland could be intimidating, but his nervous tic just how he deals with the anxiety that comes along with his disability.

The day's budget is $60 for groceries, so Strickland needed to be careful to make sure he had enough food for his fiancée, Teresa, and her two sons.

Towering over the cart, Strickland hardly had to lean over to begin placing his items on the conveyor belt. A pack of ground beef, tortillas, some vegetables and quick-and-easy Hamburger Helper meals move down to the scanner.

Tanika Dilworth, the Gulf Bend employee, keeps a close eye as the cost of the groceries surpassed his budget by a few dollars.

"We need to take some stuff out, Ray," she said. Again, Strickland rubbed his knuckles together in angst.

"You can do without this and that," Dilworth said, removing the items. He was still over budget, but not by much, and that would have to do.

His anxiety faded.



MEET THE FAMILY

Dilworth is at the wheel, heading to Strickland's apartment before taking him to work.

Strickland knows the basics of driving, though he is unlicensed.

This is exactly what his Home and Community Services program through Gulf Bend is for. It's there to help him where and when he needs it.

Aside from money management through the center, which is his payee, he also receives housekeeping, nursing and some driving assistance.

When he's not being driven by a Gulf Bend employee, he takes a Victoria Transit bus.

Strickland has about 20 minutes until his shift begins at the Speedy Stop on North Navarro. He and Dilworth arrive at his two-bedroom home at Mockingbird Lane Apartments and unload the day's groceries.

His fiancée stands by the bar-top in the kitchen, her wavy, dirty-blonde hair rests down to about her mid-back.

He and Teresa Bates met a little more than a year ago. Bates, 37, lived several apartment buildings down with her mother. Bates' mother is the one who played matchmaker.

Since then, the two have been inseparable. He wraps his giant arms around her, and she returns the gesture, staring up at him with squinted eyes behind thick glasses.

"I love you," she murmurs.

Strickland said he's always wanted a girlfriend. Teresa is his first, and he hopes his last. The possibility of having a family is another surprise he never expected to have.

Because of the program, he is able to live on his own with some sort of supervision. He is able to have a relationship.

"I love her," he said. "She cooks and helps clean."

But this month, the two are not alone.

Bates' children, who live with their biological father in New Mexico, are down for a visit.

Chris Schaaf, 12 and Johnny Schaaf, 13, sit on adjacent couches playing their Nintendo DS and wearing thick glasses just like their mother.

Johnny is a bit shy and well-informed about certain obscure facts. He has Asperger's, which is on the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum.

Chris has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and is quite talkative. He always thinks before he speaks.

Bates has had several health complications, including asthma, which is her biggest hindrance. She isn't living with an intellectual disability, like Strickland.

The two hold onto each other until the absolute last minute before his departure.



11 A.M.

Strickland makes one last go-around of the Speedy Stop parking lot.

Stepping into the store, Strickland heads to the employee room to put away the supplies. The room is a bit chilly because of the freezers on the opposite side.

"It's hot out there," Strickland said, basking in the cool air.

Strickland is an important part of this location's success and daily operation, said Manager Anthony Otto.

Otto has known Strickland for several months, though Strickland has worked at the location for nine years. Before Speedy Stop, he worked at the McDonald's several blocks down the street.

"He doesn't run the registers, but he's usually bagging ice, fronting shelves, cleaning the pump, sweeping and helping customers out," Otto said.

Strickland's disability does not, in any way, prevent him from doing a good job.

As most of Strickland's coworkers work fast making tacos and manning the register, he parades around doing the little things that really matter.

Gulf Bend helped him find this job, as well as the one previous to it, said Calvin Green, Strickland's case manager.

Green has been Strickland's Gulf Bend case manager for about eight years. As far as Strickland's records show, he has been in the program since 1993, since even before Green arrived at the center.

The program aims to make those with disabilities as independent as possible. At the same time, the program tries to stand back a bit, letting the consumer initiate conversation.

To be considered intellectually disabled, the IQ must be below 70. Strickland is right at the cusp.

While his IQ does hinder him from some tasks, Strickland is in a world in which he feels normal just like anyone else.

Otto offers Strickland no special treatment.

"I know he can do it," Otto said as Strickland walked around the store looking for something to work on. "Anybody can do anything they want. You've just got to let them do it."



3:30 P.M.

Before Strickland knows it, his four-hour Tuesday through Saturday shift is over.

Walking toward the nearest transit stop, Strickland hears several honks, something he's grown used to from working outside along the busy thoroughfare.

Strickland grabs the transit's blue line. He has a monthly pass. The driver knows this and knows Ray as his tired feet carefully go up the steps to find a seat.

"It's like a tour of the whole city," Strickland said, his hands resting on his full belly.

Some familiar faces are already on board. They leave and others come aboard, including one younger man Strickland once helped out.

"I helped him with a dollar once," Strickland said loudly. "He wouldn't have made it work."

The man slouched in his seat, headphones in his ears, "Yeah, you did. Thanks for that."

Strickland enjoys the bus and uses what he has learned at Gulf Bend to help integrate himself more into society.

On certain days of the week, a Gulf Bend employee and Strickland will have a community inclusion, where Strickland says hello to people and tries to break any barriers of stigma.

Strickland even serves as a trainer for football teams in the area, he said. In a couple of weeks he will be helping with St. Joseph High School.

"Ray takes a lot of initiative," said Green. "He's pretty fiercely independent. They want to be treated like adults."

Strickland's loud voice makes his presence known. Most show their respect, but some cast stares. But when that smile flashes and his excitement boils over the simplest things in life, nothing compares. Strickland finds life simple, he's just happy to be included in the community.

As the bus rolls to a stoplight at Crestwood Drive and Navarro Street, Strickland stretches his neck out to look at what's going on around him.

"It's gone now," Strickland said, pointing to the rubble left from Furrs' demolition. "What's gonna go there?"

"A Peter Piper Pizza," someone on the bus chimes in.

"I love food, and I love pizza," Strickland exclaims, patting his stomach.



4:15 P.M.

Strickland gets off the bus at one of the last stops, the one right in front of his apartment complex.

He's right back to where he started.

He's back home, it's taco night and he can't wait to simply hang out with his fiancée and the boys.

Bates embraces Strickland, kissing him as though he'd been gone for a lifetime.

She follows him into the bedroom and then back out, helping him slip on a more comfortable shirt.

"I'm stuck," he said, laughing.

The family of four float around the living room and kitchen. No one in their own room, away from one another.

Chris flips on his Nintendo DS and puts on a Bon Jovi song as his mother carefully uses a knife to slice off a chunk of ground beef for the tacos.

Strickland can hardly wait. He grabs a mini-bag of potato chip ridges and crushes them lightly with a hammer before opening the back and devouring its contents in seconds.

As the smell of cooking meat wafts throughout the apartment, Strickland makes his way to his recliner.

"It's time for 'MASH'," he said, asking the kids first if they were watching what was on the Cartoon Network.

Bates leaves the kitchen and stands beside him. She moves a page of drawing paper with a detailed, spot on drawing of Strickland. She drew it herself.

"I was born during an episode of 'MASH'," she tells Strickland. "Abyssinia, Henry."

She moves back to the kitchen and Strickland makes his way back to the dining room, where Chris plays with his Nintendo DS.

Life is good right now for Strickland. He has his fiancée, his own apartment and a job.

"I've always wanted a girlfriend," he said. "I don't like being alone. I like having someone to talk to."

The four of them just spent a day at Splashway in Sheridan. They also went to their first Generals baseball game.

Strickland looks around the room, trying to kill time.

"Chris does this thing where he falls onto his bed," Strickland said excitedly out of nowhere. "Come on, do it. Do it, do it, do it, do it!"

Chris doesn't take much convincing. Seconds later, the two are in the room Chris and his brother share. Chris stands with his back against the bed and let's his body go stiff, falling back into the sheets below.

The feeling is a complete rush of adrenaline and freedom, he said.

Strickland becomes easily excited, cheering on Chris as if he were his own. He looks like any other caring father, despite what any label like Intellectual Developmental Disability may suggest to others.

Soon, Strickland mimics Chris. Staring at the wall, a freeing smile stretches across his broad jaw.

He lets go.

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