ETNA, Maine — With the wind whipping and temperatures sinking toward zero, the prospect of going outside in the dark hung heavy at the Etna Fire Department.
For a fire there would be no hesitation. But this was just training.
As the 7 p.m. start rolled closer, the firefighters suited up, donning insulated gloves and head wraps designed for warmth. Conversation consisted of commiserating over the fact that the night’s training involved spraying water around — and lots of it.
Amid the long faces was the ever-smiling David Ledin.
Challenges mounted from the moment pressure was first applied to the hoses. Four firefighters crouched around a “deck gun,” a high-power water nozzle that can be mounted on the ground or to a firetruck. When the pressure came, the gun toppled over and a sudden geyser soaked everyone in the area, including Ledin, coating face masks with sheets of ice and turning outerwear into impromptu suits of frigid armor.
Two hours of training remained, but already most of the firefighters were pulling their coats tighter and standing with their backs to the wind.
Ledin focused on reassembling the deck gun. To say he was unfazed is an understatement. Ledin was energized.
“We got to get this thing going again,” Ledin said in a high-pitched voice familiar to scores of people across central Maine. “I’m going to spray it hard enough to squirt someone into the next county,” he added, pointing west. “I’ve done it before.”
Spray he did, following a regimented procedure that had been explained by the department’s training officer. Ledin breezed through the session just as he has for everything from CPR to handling blood-borne pathogens. When the training ended, Ledin was one of the last three firefighters still outside, hitting a stubborn, half-frozen coupling with a rubber mallet to detach it from a dry hydrant.
Ledin, 44, who is classified by the state Department of Health and Human Services as an adult with developmental disabilities, will probably never be the point man rushing into a burning building, but Etna Fire Chief Walter Gibbons said it’s not because Ledin isn’t capable.
“There’s no task you could ask him to do that he wouldn’t jump right on,” said Gibbons, who has known Ledin for at least 15 years. “There are things he can do and be a real help at a fire scene. At this point it’s up to his guardians [whether he starts going to fire scenes]. He’s passed all the training. He knows what to do.”
Deputy Fire Chief Steve DeWitt said part of Ledin’s value to the department is that he provides inspiration, especially for longtimers who have attended the same training sessions over and over again.
“Dave’s just as excited to be here as you may not be,” DeWitt said. “If he wanted to do something bad enough, he could do anything.”
During a recent interview with the Bangor Daily News, Ledin agreed.
“I’m normal, not the other way around,” he said. “If you know what I mean.”
Ledin stalked out of his bedroom in Plymouth looking like a cowboy, right down to a flashy string tie and pearly buttons on his shirt. It was an appropriate outfit for a guy who digs country music, big rigs and race cars.
“David likes dressing up sometimes for special occasions,” said Laurie Berube Giles, whose home Ledin lives in, as she unpacked Christmas ornaments for the family’s tree. “This is a special family occasion.”
Ledin and the Giles family spent the next hour decorating, chatting about holiday plans and consulting with each other about ornament placement, just like many families do. Except here there’s something distinctive. This is David Ledin’s home, but this isn’t his family — not his real one, anyway.
“You do this one,” Ledin said to Laurie Giles, holding a delicate glass ornament. “I don’t want to break it.”
“It’s OK, David,” said Giles. “You can do it.”
Steve Giles, Laurie’s husband, has been Ledin’s caregiver for the past three years plus. Seven years ago Giles was in his 26th year working for the same firm in Bangor. He needed a change and chose working with adults with developmental disabilities.
Then the opportunity arose through Giles’ employer, a firm called Living Innovations, to move a client into his and Laurie’s home in Plymouth. Laurie’s 21-year-old son, Jonathan, who has a developmental disability, lives with them.
“We just felt we had a lot we could offer someone, that we could change the course of someone’s life,” said Steve Giles. “It seemed like a perfect opportunity.”
On any given day, Giles and Ledin can be found at the Detroit Country Store or the Plymouth post office, the town office or any of a dozen other hangouts.
Giles takes Ledin to doctor’s appointments, ferries him to work and accompanies him to activities ranging from a cooking class at Nokomis Regional High School to drag races in Winterport.
“He’s very well-known in the area,” Giles said. “He has friends and people who know him everywhere.”
Ledin, who was born in Pittsfield, grew up in Dixmont. Several of his family members still live in the area, visiting him often and providing financial support for his activities. Through the Gileses, they declined to be interviewed.
From 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, Ledin is a janitor at a thrift store Waterville. It’s a paid job, just like the training sessions he attends at the Etna Fire Department, though his Fire Department stipend amounts to only about $100 a year, according to Chief Gibbons.
The money is necessary; David Ledin has expenses. Topping the list recently was a pair of work boots. “You need steel-toed boots out around the trucks,” said Ledin.
With the help of Social Security income, he also pays room and board to the Gileses, according to Lynn Augustine, a director at Living Innovations’ Bangor office. Augustine, who is in charge of a wide swath of Maine north of Waterville, oversees approximately 70 shared living homes like Ledin’s. Most of those people are supported by MaineCare funding, but each client pays the host family room and board — typically about $630 a month — and the caregivers receive an additional annual stipend of around $30,000 a year. MaineCare pays the stipend, said Augustine.
“It’s an incredibly rewarding job,” said Augustine. “We see success stories like David all the time.”
Approximately 400 people in Maine live in a situation similar to Ledin’s, according to DHHS.
“It’s a program that works well,” said department spokesman John Martins, pointing out that shared living arrangements like Ledin’s are proliferating nationwide. But dire budget conditions in state government have whittled a lot of programs in recent years, including those for adults with developmental disabilities. The cutting is far from over.
In a supplemental budget package proposed last week by Gov. John Baldacci in an effort to fill a $438 million budget gap, the governor proposed a 10 percent reduction in rates paid to “providers under all sections of MaineCare policy except hospitals, physicians, pharmacy and dental services,” according to the budget docu-ment. In the mental retardation MaineCare waiver program, which is what funds Ledin’s living arrangement, the cut would save more than $4.7 million in fiscal year 2011.
If a cut like that becomes law, there’s no question that it would affect compensation for providers like the Gileses, said Augustine.
“We really don’t want to do that,” said Augustine. “They’re working hard. They’ve got clients living in their homes.”
Cleaning the SKILLS Inc. Thrift Store in Waterville isn’t easy. After all, with its inventory of used items ranging from vinyl records to computer towers, it’s designed more like a yard sale than a boutique.
Ledin, who has been working there since autumn, does janitorial chores and helps pick up or deliver materials in the organization’s van. Recently, he was mopping the floor vigorously — producing a sheen of sweat on his brow — until retail manager Joanne Grignon said it was time for lunch and then a trip to pick up some do-nated furniture.
“Wait, I haven’t mopped over there yet,” said Ledin, pointing to an area containing cameras, dishes and home decorations.
“It’s OK, David,” said Grignon. “That floor will be there Monday when you come back.”
“Oh, OK,” said Ledin. He dumped the mop water outside and chomped a sandwich while walking down around back to meet the van driver.
Ledin earns minimum wage for his toils at the thrift shop, and according to Grignon, he earns it. He’s the type of guy who doesn’t let himself be idle.
“When he finishes one thing, he’ll just find something else to do,” she said. “He’s a very hard worker who contributes a lot.”
Most of the SKILLS thrift store’s 40 employees have some sort of developmental disability — SKILLS stands for Somerset and Kennebec Individualized Learning and Living Supports — but Grignon said that in no way means their jobs have been created just to occupy them.
“We expect our employees to work,” said Grignon. “They’re treated like any employee at any other business. They have an employee handbook, they go to trainings, and they clock in and out every day.”
“Except for when I manage to mess it up,” chimed in Ledin with a wide grin, making it clear he was joking, as he often does.
Grignon said she values Ledin for more than his hard work ethic. “He has such a wonderful way with the customers,” she said.
Life back at the Giles household is orderly and relaxed. Ledin spends a lot of time on his own, watching television, assembling models of muscle cars or listening intently to the crackling voices of dispatchers on his scanner and Fire Department pager.
With the Gileses’ dedication and additional support from family members who live in the area, Ledin’s schedule is busy, and he has goals. One of those goals is someday to earn a driver’s license and maybe a job as a cashier. To do either of those, he knows he needs to learn to read, so he and Laurie Giles spend an hour or so almost every evening at the dining room table, sounding out the words in a children’s book.
“What’s that word?” he asked her recently.
“What sound do the letters C-H make?” Giles asked.
“Ch,” said Ledin.
“So what’s that word then?”
“Porch,” said Ledin. “I couldn’t read at all when I first moved here. Now I’m getting a lot of satisfaction.”
He’s aware that some people see him differently, but what is more important to Ledin is the way he sees himself. “I’m normal, not the other way around, you know,” he said, repeating a familiar refrain.
BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTOS BY BRIDGET BROWN
Etna Volunteer Fire Department members (from left) Amanda Lane, David Ledin and Tina Wolfe recount a humorous incident at a training session recently.
David Ledin lets out a big belly laugh at a training session recently at the Etna Fire Department. “Jeez, he’s a lot of fun to have around,” said Fire Chief Walter Gibbons of Ledin’s involvement with the department.
David Ledin tries his hand at directing a fire hose at a cold-weather, hose-handling training session recently.