TOWSON – Growing up, Jerry Bullinger knew his next door neighbor was different, but it didn’t matter. The boy did everything the other kids did, and nobody made fun of him.
Bullinger, 51, didn’t realize that his neighbor was mildly retarded until he began working with people like him. Indirectly, the youthful experience may have shaped Bullinger’s professional life as an advocate for the disabled and director of employment services for the Baltimore Association for Retarded Citizens, better known as BARC.
He never thought in a million years that this would be his career.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Maryland at College Park, Bullinger became an insurance salesman. Five years later, he knew he wasn’t “into it,” but he wanted to continue in sales.
“I got a job placing individuals with disabilities in jobs,” Bullinger recalls. “Job placement is sales — convincing a customer to buy a product.”
That was the first of several positions culminating in the one he holds now, in which he promotes the sameness of the retarded — their drive to contribute to society — rather than the differences.
Bullinger grew up in blue-collar Baltimore, and says today that no matter what the job, old-fashioned work ethic is what he looks for in others: “Even if you don’t like your job, you do the absolute best that you can do.”
His commitment to doing good shines through his work and attitude toward his clients. He escorted two of them recently to Annapolis to testify in favor of legislation giving a tax credit to employers who hire individuals with disabilities. The bill has passed the House of Delegates and was heard Friday in a Senate committee.
Ray Houston, 36, is mildly retarded. He lives on his own, drives his own car and works as a janitor at Ward Machinery in Cockeysville.
“Jerry Bullinger is one hell of a man,” Houston says, his voice and gestures intensifying with his affection for his subject. “If you are in a bad situation, he’ll do what he can to help.”
He is just as enthusiastic about Bullinger’s employer.
“BARC helps people when you are in need,” Houston says. “If BARC wasn’t there, you’d go down the tubes. Someone’s always there picking you up.”
Clients such as Houston get their jobs when Bullinger gets a lead from a business, restaurant or corporation. He, in turn, passes the tip to a placement manager who matches the job with a client, based on the client’s interests.
Belinda Fitzhugh, one of those placement managers, says Bullinger is a hands-on director who doesn’t hesitate to act when someone is in need.
“Jerry listens when you have a problem,” Fitzhugh said. “He sets things up where everyone is comfortable with their jobs. We can go into his office and talk about anything.”
Once placed, new employees get something almost as critical as a job: a job coach, who helps train clients until they feel comfortable enough the job on their own. The coach checks up on the clients semi-monthly.
BARC’s problem right now is a lack of job coaches, placement managers say. Bullinger says there is now only one coach for every 19 clients. Three years ago, the ratio was one to 12. The association needs another six coaches, he says, for the work it squeezes now from its current staff is “like drawing blood out of a turnip.”
For Bullinger, BARC isn’t merely a job. His wife, Carol, says he has done everything he can to include his clients in his own family, even inviting them home to spend Christmas with the couple’s four children.
“He really does challenge the kids to make sure they have a good attitude toward handicapped people,” Carol Bullinger says. “To tell you the truth, he made me feel more comfortable around them.”
Bullinger and Fitzhugh both mention that salaries are low in their field.
“I get my rewards when they get their job and are doing well,” Fitzhugh said. “It doesn’t pay a lot of money so you have to like what you do.”
Bullinger says the payback isn’t financial. On a recent beautiful spring morning, he visited the association’s landscaping operation, from which clients are sent to local businesses to maintain lawns, gardens and trees.
“Everybody was flocking around me, saying, `When are you going to do something with me, Jerry?'” Bullinger remembers. “You can’t measure that in dollars and cents.” -30-