By Gerhard Schneibel

Teresa Warley’s daughter, Anne Marie, 31, has been going to the DeKalb Services Center in Brookhaven Park on Osborne Road each week since she graduated from Cross Keys High School in May 1999.

Anne Marie is developmentally disabled, and her mother said she relies on the center because she needs “some safe place to bring Anne.”

The center is on the site of a former Veterans Affairs hospital and is owned by DeKalb County. Ronnie Mayer, the president of the Ashford Park Civic Association known by many as the unofficial mayor of Brookhaven, has called the center a dilapidated building that is suitable to tear down to make way for a new Brookhaven Library.

But proponents of the DeKalb Services Center say it is a community asset and serves a vital role as a training site and day center for adults with special needs. It provides daytime habilitation, support and work activity for about 170 developmentally disabled adults. The center’s focus is on enabling them to develop, maintain and enhance skills needed to be more independent and maintain a higher quality of life.

Cathy Fraser, the center’s director, said many of its employees rely on the nearby Brookhaven MARTA station to get to work. They also use the transit system to move their developmentally disabled charges throughout the metro area for trips and activities.

“We do take folks to a lot of venues downtown and throughout the city. … We’d rather have them ride on MARTA than in the vehicles with the state seal and have them be part of the community,” she said. “It’s nice here, too, because not only are we close to MARTA, but we have that nice park we can use. We just think we have a good place for our folks here.”

Fraser has worked at the center for 20 years. It was founded by a group of parents before 1979, and its first home was the old Hamilton High School in Scottsdale, which was abandoned by the DeKalb County School System.

“The stories I hear about that place were just deplorable because the school system had moved out of that building because they thought it wasn’t fit for their folks,” Fraser said.

DeKalb County recently replaced wood siding on the center and repainted it on the occasion of its 30th anniversary, she said, “but of course they get strapped for funding like anybody else.”

Anne Marie Warley can communicate through a device with a keyboard, and she has performed simple work in the past. For a while she earned money stuffing plastic bags with shredded money for sale in the gift shop of the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta.

Now she sells cards with pictures she took using a digital camera and a tripod for $1each.

She’s saving up to buy a laptop computer so she can take it when she goes on trips with her mother to Walt Disney World and on handicapped-accessible Disney cruises. She said she likes to travel because she meets new friends.

Teresa Warley said that if her daughter didn’t have access to the DeKalb Services Center, she wouldn’t have a place to be around people she can relate to.

“When people with disabilities see each other in the world, especially if it seems like someone like them, it’s almost as if they’re going to start talking,” she said. “I could not provide the kind of experience Anne has here on my own.”