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FOR FAMILY, PROGRESS COMES WITH PATIENCE RIVERSIDE COUPLE MARKS SMALL VICTORIES OVER ALCOHOLISM, DISABILITIES

Life moves a little more slowly for the Arnolds than most families.

In February, Margaret Arnold, 37, expects to be ready to take her high school equivalency test. After studying for six years and just missing the first time she took it, she's clearly excited about what would be one of the proudest moments in her life.

Margaret's husband, Donald, 39, who is unable to read or write, is in his second year without having a drink. His alcoholism brought many problems to his family and himself. Each passing week Arnold avoids a drink marks another victory.

"I figured it was time to get my head straight," Donald said.

Donald Jr., 8, who is so affectionate his family calls him "lover boy," is a slow learner who functions at the rate of a 4-year-old. He's learned how to say his prayers at night and is working on graces for meals.

Karen, 12, has an 84 average in the seventh grade at All Saints Catholic School on Esser Avenue and hopes to go to college.

The Arnold family is doing much better than six years ago.

Those were the days when Mrs. Arnold went to the store with the Social Security checks she and her husband received because they are developmentally disabled, and she came back with a few inexpensive items and no change. The clerks tricked her out of the rest.

The Arnolds kept running out of food. The house was a mess. The county Social Services Department was about to take away their two children.

This is when George Bergman got involved.

Donald Arnold asked Bergman to become the family's protective guardian. The Arnolds now call Bergman "Grandpa." He's there every day, paying their bills, budgeting their money, looking for bargains, helping them with schoolwork and encouraging them to keep working toward goals that eventually will make a big difference.

The Arnolds live in a housing project off Ontario Street in Riverside. They live on a total of $1,100 from the monthly Social Security checks.

"Can you get by on that?" Bergman asked. "That's what they're getting by on."

They pay their own rent ($340 a month, which includes most heat and electricity). They get no food stamps. The Arnolds try to live as self-sufficiently and normally as they can.

Sometimes the money runs out and Grandpa dips into his savings to get the "necessities" they need at the end of the month, Bergman said.

"Some months we go pretty deep into my money," Bergman said. "Then I take a little out (from the Arnolds' checks) to catch up little by little."

Both Donald and Margaret remember when they were in regular schools and failing terribly. The other students would call them the "R word."

"If I'm one then you're one, too," Margaret Arnold told one tormentor when she was 9 years old. "Because you're no better than me."

Mrs. Arnold's mother found her daughter reading the cereal box upside-down. That's when her mother suspected she was dyslexic.

"It was really hard for me," Mrs. Arnold said. "People kept telling me 'You can't learn.' You get that pounded in your head, and then you say fine. I can't learn anything."

Donald Arnold has had some jobs -- most recently, for two years as a laborer for Nichter Construction Co. But it's difficult to get a job when you cannot read or write and only finished the fifth grade, Bergman said. Donald Arnold has a heart condition and an ulcer that narrows his choices even more.

But the misery doesn't show. The Arnolds' life is abuzz with ordinary activity. Donald Jr. is taking classes at the Cantalician Center for Learning on Main Street and always seems to get his share of attention.

"If he's a good boy and he tries hard, he gets his hugs and kisses," Bergman said. "And he loves affection so he makes sure and tries hard.

"He can learn, but he's slow," he said. "Eventually, I hope we'll be able to get him into a regular school."

Mrs. Arnold has learned a lot, too.

"I won't guarantee I'm the world's greatest cook," Mrs. Arnold said. "But I make meat loaf and chicken and know how to stuff a turkey. I can put a decent meal together."

The Arnolds also are ready for the tough questions. They've been married for 13 years.

What would they tell people who think mentally disabled people should not get married and have children? "If you give a handicapped person a try, you shouldn't look at their handicap," Mrs. Arnold said. "You look at what's inside of them."

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