Bert Cicenia, a man for – and ahead – of his time
I cried when I heard that Bert Cicenia passed away. I had every reason to, as he had an incredible impact on our family. We treasured him for his insight and obvious passion for his work. He was the first superintendent of the Coastal Center in Ladson and Summerville citizen extraordinaire, supportive of local Democratic politics as well as innumerable arts, business, civic and social organizations. These included Children in Crisis, Dorchester County Social Services, the Mayor’s Committee on Disabilities, Rotary Club, Summerville Community Orchestra and the Summerville YMCA. His friend Jan Freeman, who helped with his bills, groceries and provided him with extra companionship during the last few years, said, “What wasn’t he involved in?”
I first met “Dr. C” as he was universally known at the Coastal Center in 1966 as part of an Air Force wives club effort to help decorate and promote this premier residence to care for the mentally retarded. I was impressed by his charisma and gift for community connection but thought little more about it until August 3, 1967, the day I gave birth to boy-girl twins and learned our son had Down syndrome.
We were told Jimmy was profoundly retarded, would never develop past 11 months and probably never even turn over, much less learn. We shouldn’t take him home from the hospital, but place him in an “appropriate” facility for “basic” care. As Jim and I believed he’d get the best care from his parents and family, thank you, we ignored this advice. But I sought more counsel from Dr. C. “Keep him with you as long as you can,” he said hugging me. “And when – and if – you ever need to give him a loving ‘home away from home,’ call me.” Nine years later we did.
We hadn’t managed to teach Jimmy any useful skills while he was with us. In the four AF moves since his birth, he had regressed with each change of station and his challenges grew until he required 24/7 care. Finally, we had to consider Dr. C’s guidance. We had visited dozens of warehousing style facilities during our travels in the states and abroad. The Coastal Center, under Dr. C’s leadership, was innovative for its time, planned on a cottage theme, so that residents are housed in family sized dwellings according to age, sex and abilities. They share small bedrooms and a recreation-dining room, with loving care specialists to help them day and night.
Jimmy, in common with his fellow residents, follows a customized schedule. He not only turns over, he has been taught to feed and dress himself (except for buttons, zippers and shoelaces and God bless Velcro!). He also attends and continues to learn in a sheltered classroom, takes frequent field trips to fast food restaurants and gets to attend the Flowertown Festival. He lives a normal life for his skills with opportunities to grow and even enjoy listening to his favorite jazz saxophonist, his twin, Mary Clare. Jimmy Hill is only one of the hundreds of residents who have been cared for at that wonderful facility which was initially led and inspired by Dr. C.
For that – if for no other reason – if anyone ever deserved that high mansion in heaven, it’s Bert Cicenia.