IM this article to a friend!

February 11, 2004

Serving the deaf, Corliss Institute turns 18

From: Providence Journal (subscription) - Providence,RI,USA - Feb 11, 2004

Journal Staff Writer

Behind The Corliss Institute's plate-glass windows on Main Street, an 18-year-old experiment is thriving.

Residents, who live independently in 24 apartments around Warren, gather in groups to chat in American Sign Language. Daytime clients sit at tables, learning new vocabulary words. Staff members help them use the computers, run errands, and plan their days.

But although the Corliss Institute has been a part of Warren for nearly two decades, few of the people who pass the center every day really understand its purpose.

That lack of knowledge is what director Mary Ellen Breen is intent on changing.

"Our basic focus is to live in the community and be a part of Warren, work if you can, and live in your apartment and have an independent life," Breen said. "We really want to get more awareness of what we're doing, and see if people can join in."

Corliss caters to members with a wide range of abilities -- some are deaf, others are severely developmentally disabled -- but all are encouraged to live as independently as possible, whether that means supporting themselves through work or choosing what activities to do each day.

It is an institute, not an institution.

"I like teaching the members how to be independent," signed staff member Nick Testone, with interpreter Carol Fay translating from ASL. "I like to see the members do things on their own. I like to see them do all the things that they can do."

The Corliss Institute was founded in 1985 by Warren residents June and Frederic Rockefeller, whose daughter Betsy is deaf and visually impaired. The Rockefellers wanted to place Betsy in a home, not a hospital; when they had trouble finding such a place, they decided to create one.

"I didn't have a very clear picture in mind, but she definitely needed a residential home, and needed some support and encouragement, and I was very hopeful that it would develop into some sort of community," said June Rockefeller. Corliss owns four buildings in Warren and has around 50 clients, about 20 of whom live in the private apartments the institute has in Warren. There are five clients who pay privately for Corliss membership; others receive state support and choose Corliss as their service provider.

There are also 50 day and residential staff members, most of whom are deaf.

"Our whole idea is to get deaf people together in a visual environment, where they can sign together," signed Testone. "We teach people, basically, how to be independent."

© Belo Interactive Inc.