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The Ability Resources Center
Helping John Replogle and others lead a happy, independent life

When those tasty lunch specials pour out of the Ocean Grill’s kitchen, the crew hums like a engine. No doubt the midday heat and a mountain of orders might fray a few nerves even in this well tempered machine. But not over where the greasiest pots and pans get scrubbed clean and shiny.

A compact, middle-aged man says thank you for every pot handed him, and cleans them thoroughly with a smile. John Replogle, devoted to his work, is the younger brother of Charlie Replogle, who manages the business and has the long term lease on the famous eatery.

John has Down’s syndrome, a chromosomal disorder caused by the presence of all or part of an extra 21st chromosome. It is only one of the developmental disorders that falls under the government’s catch-phrase: Special Needs. John lives in a group home and comes and goes to work via a van provided by the Abilities Resource Center in Indian River County.

He lives an exemplary life as a well adjusted, happy person, with independence, a meaningful job, and a place to live apart from his family who include him in their varied activities.

The Abilities Resource Center has helped John and many others find housing, a social network, and a way to live full lives. This Saturday, the ARC is having a fundraiser, the Spring Swing Golf Tournament at the Sandridge Golf Course. Details on how you can still enter can be found at the bottom of this story.

The picture for Indian River County’s developmentally challenged residents wasn’t always so hopeful. John’s mother Mary Ellen Replogle was instrumental in forging the current reality.

Mary Ellen Replogle, as vigorous as ever in her early eighties, has a strong will and a kind heart. Two stories, one of public service and one of private challenges, are intertwined in a life spent in business, activism, and motherhood.

She began with a temperament for business. “When you run a restaurant, you work while others are playing,” she says, after years in the notoriously strenuous, stressful business. “But it can be very gratifying, and when things are going well, it can be exceptionally gratifying.”

Mary Ellen Replogle and her thenhusband Jake first came to Vero Beach as honeymooners in 1949; they ran a hamburger and hot dog stand on 14th St. before eventually leaving for Wisconsin so that Jake could pursue coursework in restaurant operations.

By the time they returned for good in 1965, they had a family of four children and two successful steak houses in Milwaukee. They were eager to lease the Ocean Grill building from the Sexton family and begin a business in the wellknown structure lurching out over the sand. With its mahogany, cypress, and wrought iron interiors, and grand view of the rolling Atlantic Ocean, the Grill was a natural lure for experienced restaurateurs.

Along with moving a large family and beginning a new business venture, Mary Ellen Replogle arrived with an unexpected and demanding job. Her last child, John, had been born with Down’s syndrome the year before. He joined brother Charlie, and two older sisters, Anne and Connie, now of Arlington VA. and Brooklyn New York.

In those days, children with disabilities were sometimes raised in institutional settings. But the Replogles wanted to have their son at home. “I was fortunate. I had a very helpful pediatrician in Milwaukee, who encouraged me to keep my baby at home where he would thrive better. But I was working, and I needed help.”

Community support for families with a disabled member was much less available than today. The Replogles were able to find a live-in caretaker, Helen Shoemaker, who had been a nurse in two world wars and had cared for Waldo Sexton at the end of his life.

“Helen was a remarkable person, a true God-send,” said Replogle. “She had a totally positive outlook and took John everywhere. He was so wonderfully socialized because of all Helen did to help us.”

Shoemaker’s role also included physical therapy with John. “She worked his arms and legs, and did gym work with him. He is a great swimmer even today.”

She also helped instill a southern gentleman’s breeding. “He has wonderful manners,” his mother says proudly.

Maryellen Replogle spent the next 17 years running the Ocean Grill. Her face became familiar to those on the beach and across the river as the business flourished, known to be toughminded but fair as an employer, with great energy for her work.

Meanwhile, her children grew up, with John beginning school at Vero Beach Elementary, and then going to the Wabasso School for Handicapped Children.

“He was able to memorize, and eventually to read,” says Replogle.

As John grew toward adulthood, Mary Ellen faced a situation familiar to families with special needs members. How could greater independence be created for these persons once they leave school behind? How could they learn to work toward the day when their parents would not be there? How can a fuller, more complete life be achieved? She and the rest of John’s family wrestled with how he might attain more independence and some separation from them.

In 1976, Mary Ellen Replogle became president of the board of a group committed to helping Indian River County answer those questions. She joined Nadine Brown, Janet Schact, Ed Neddo, Dr. Steve Macintosh, and Leta Chezbraugh in the formation of what was called the Vocational Sheltered Workshop. Their aim was to create a new non-profit organization with a center to provide day services for adult individuals with Special Needs, and hopefully more.

The group had no land, no assets, and no money. An Abilities Resource Center (called the Association of Retarded Citizens at the time) already existed, but it served only infants, helping parents identify and get help with their youngest children. ARC had offices in the old 2001 building in downtown Vero Beach.

Mary Ellen Replogle enlisted the aid of Dr. Harry Hurst, a neighbor of hers in Riomar, who was head of Exceptional Child Education in the Indian River County school system. “I have known John since he was 18 months old,” Dr. Hurst remembers. “I knew I wanted to help Mary Ellen and the others create a new place for adults, an entirely new organization. But we were going to have to build it from nothing at the beginning.”

Harry Hurst went before the County Commission in 1976 to ask for land for the new group to create a center. Property behind the high school was offered for lease for a dollar a year for 50 years, later extended to 99 years. Dr. Hurst also wrote a proposal for funds to the state Department of Health and Rehabilitation Services, now known as Children and Family Services. The Vocational Sheltered workshop was awarded $30,000.

With these funds they would be able to hire instructors in vocational education. They also hired their first director, Gloria Gearhardt. Builder Ed Neddo designed and built the first building, donating his own money and materials.

Mary Ellen Replogle arranged painting, wall paper, and other interior improvements to create a more comfortable, home-like feeling. She enlisted her neighbor Anita Flinchum to create custom drapery for the new building. “We started right before Christmas in 1976 and were able to move in by Easter,” Replogle remembers.

Transportation is always a struggle for special needs families or individuals. The Knights of Columbus donated the first van to the Vocational Sheltered Workshop, and they were in business.

Leona Quimby, who still owns For Kids Only pre-school, arrived in Vero Beach in 1978. She was hired by the ARC, which at that time still worked exclusively with infants and preschoolers. “We had a classroom in the 2001 building where they had their offices,” she recalls. “Eventually we were able to get permission to use the Sea Scouts building over by the beach Fire Station. That is now the River House.

“At ARC we were in total awe of the Sheltered Workshop Group. Mary Ellen was president of their board, and they were so organized and had all the components pulled together”.

Quimby became Executive Director of ARC, and by 1982 the two groups realized their aims and needs overlapped. “ARC was able to get use of a small building behind Vero Beach Elementary where years before a Woman’s Club taught bicycle safety. That building was across from the main building of the Sheltered Workshop. They were looking for a new executive director, so I took over that job and we merged the two groups. That’s when I got to know Mary Ellen,” Leona Quimby remembers.

“We were both committed to making it work, to creating one organization with a whole life focus. We wanted to offer family counseling, training, and help these children and adults live productive, integrated lives.”

ARC grew to offer respite care for care-givers, summer programs, skills training, and group homes. “The entire thing was just a totally awesome experience for me, seeing these two organizations form a whole,” she says. “Mary Ellen was one of the main people in those days and helped make sure we shared our common ground.”

Quimby left as Executive Director after several years, and the group struggled to find a good director. Dr. Hurst took over the role from 1990 until 1999. He was able to win a $660,000 grant from U.S. Health and Urban Development that provided for the purchase and remodeling of two homes to be used as group homes for residents.

An additional building, the Children’s Center was constructed on the ARC campus. Built by Toby Hill, it had a mortgage from the days before the HUD grant. Rancher Kenneth Prince paid off the $63,500 mortgage when he learned of it from Harry Hurst.

Mary Ellen Replogle, meanwhile, organized fundraisers for ARC like Ocean Grill Night where all proceeds from the kitchen’s meals are donated to the organization. Other fundraisers included Vero to Vegas and Divine Dining where tickets were sold for a $2,000 trip to Caesar’s Palace or an elegant meal at local restaurants. Divine Dining has included dinner on a yacht or cocktails in private homes.

Today, as a busy octogenarian, Mary Ellen Replogle has reason to look around with satisfaction.

The organization that began with nothing has group homes, a large campus of buildings, numerous fund-raisers and activities, and serves a minimum of 120 people year round. Volunteers help professionals like behavioral analyst Wayne Robb and the current Executive Director Chuck Bradley. People with great needs find a multitude of supports.

Chuck Bradley, a “reformed banker” as he likes to tell it, doesn’t hesitate to relate today’s successes at ARC. “We have a man we serve from a very poor family. This Christmas he was ‘adopted’ by a local motorcycle club who gave him presents of all these wonderful things he needed – good shoes, good clothes and so on. It was quite generous, and he had never had a Christmas like that,” he recalls.

“He was so happy, hooting and hollering, and a lot of us were in tears. It is a great thing to see people improve in even small ways, to see them happy and smiling. All of our staffers feel the same way. I sleep well at night”.

John Replogle lives happily and independently at his group home. He enjoys swimming and washing those pots and pans weekdays at the Ocean Grill. His brother, Charlie, likes to tell how John is an integral part of the team. “John works right in the central part of the kitchen area where a lot is going on,” he says.

As for his mother Mary Ellen, her energy and resolve remain undimmed. “Let me just put it this way,” Charlie laughs from his busy office. “It’s really hard for her to find an open evening when we can all go out to dinner together.” And his brother John agrees with their mother: the Ocean Grill is still a wonderful place to work.

Clearly, John Replogle’s childhood manners haven’t failed him in adulthood.

“He always thanks you when you hand him one of those big pots,” says Charlie Replogle. “There’re not many employees who would do that.”

For more information about the Spring Swing Golf Tournament or to register contact Ray Hengerer, Agua Vida Design Services, Inc., 772-794- 0586, or Noreen Davis, ARC, 772-562- 6854, x215, or visit