But for the people whom Ouida Spencer serves through United Cerebral Palsy of Georgia — people who’ve spent the majority of their life in a nursing facility or under their parents’ constant care — performing such a household task on their own is an accomplishment to cherish.
Spencer, a broker-associate with RE/MAX Executives Inc. in Atlanta, has actively volunteered with UCP of Georgia for 26 years, helping people with developmental disabilities live life to its fullest.
On behalf of UCP, she has located and acquired 60 single-family homes throughout Georgia and South Carolina that are modified to house up to four adults with such disabilities as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, Down syndrome, and autism.
With the help of care providers, residents can do all kinds of activities they were never able to do before, from learning to feed themselves and communicate more clearly to listening to the music they like and finding a job. “To see someone get so excited about being able to do the laundry for the first time is what keeps me going,” says Spencer, current chairperson of UCP of Georgia. “It’s the excitement of seeing someone say, ‘This is my home.’”
Spencer’s toughest work begins after the homes have been purchased, when there’s often resistance from neighbors. Some argue that special zoning should be required for unrelated adults to live together. Others just don’t like the way a wheelchair ramp looks on their block.
“This is one of my biggest battles,” Spencer says. “I firmly believe that just because someone is disabled, it doesn’t mean the person can’t be a good neighbor.”
When neighbors resist, it’s usually because they’ve never been exposed to people with disabilities, Spencer says. She spends a lot of time educating neighbors one-on-one and attending community meetings.
Even when emotions are running high, Spencer has a knack for getting people to open their minds, says Claudia Peirce, assistant director of development for UCP. Spencer’s message is that people with developmental disabilities have the desire — and the legal right — to interact in a community. Neighbors who start out angry often turn out to be the most accepting, bringing over cakes during the holidays, mowing the lawn, and even throwing annual barbecues.
Spencer first became involved with UCP as a telethon volunteer. Working the phones, she noticed a young man in a wheelchair who had trouble speaking and was unable to control his motor functions, resulting in muscle spasms. His disability isn’t what caught her attention; it was the uncomfortable way people acted around him. Some people talked to him but were too impatient to wait for a response. Others talked over him or simply ignored him. “Finally, I approached him,” Spencer says.
The two had a long conversation about family, his graduate studies at Georgia Tech, and life in general. “He was a math genius, but people were making the assumption that he was mentally retarded,” she says.
Changing the public’s perception of people with developmental disabilities has been a mission of Spencer’s ever since.
In 1979, when Spencer joined the board, UCP of Georgia had a budget of less than $800,000 and fewer than 25 employees. Today’s budget exceeds $18 million, and staff tops 600. In addition to finding housing, Spencer has helped establish after-school programs for children and six adult day-habilitation locations, which provide job and life skills training, dexterity therapy, and employment mentoring.
Fund-raising is still a constant priority for Spencer, who raised more than $100,000 last year alone. Her efforts paid off big at a recent luncheon, where UCP topped its goals and netted more than $20,000. “Ouida was responsible for 90 percent of that amount,” Peirce says.
Spencer, who was a bank executive before entering real estate nine years ago, uses business savvy to connect with donors and volunteers but never shies away from grunt work. “She’s a person who stays after an event and cleans up, even if it’s two or three in the morning,” Peirce says.
Of Spencer’s many fine attributes, it’s empathy and caring that drive her the most. “The people we serve are like Ouida’s children,” Peirce says. “She feels totally bonded with and dedicated to each person.”