High Hopes

updated 08/07/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/07/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Mary Guthrie tucks quarters in the tiny socks of 10-month-old Lauren, who has Down syndrome, to give her ballast. Guthrie once helped a boy with spina bifida learn his right from his left by painting his right toenails with bright red polish. "I made sure to take it off before his parents picked him up," says Guthrie, 50. "His dad, a he-man, macho guy, would not have been pleased."

Hey, not even Rambo can argue with results. And Guthrie sure gets them at Giant Step, the unconventional daycare center for kids with special needs she started six years ago in Lee's Summit, Mo., a half-hour drive southeast of Kansas City. "Many of these kids were supposed to be dead—at least if parents would have believed the grim prognoses of the experts," says Guthrie, who turned her modest bungalow into a toy-filled daycare center with cheerful yellow shutters. "I hate rules. I'm the world's crappiest rule follower. I'll try anything."

Lisa Philpott can attest to that. One day when she picked up her son Jenner, 2, who was born with a rare seizure disorder and severe developmental problems, he was wearing tinfoil on his head. Guthrie had noticed that Jenner, who couldn't walk, talk or feed himself, loved the sound tinfoil makes when it's crinkled. So she made him a hat out of it. "For someone who wants all the rainbows and fancy stuff, this isn't the place," says Philpott, 36, whose son now feeds himself and plays patty-cake. "It's like home—loud, often crazy, but there's nowhere they'll get the love and stimulation they get here. Mary has taught me that 'normal' is different for everyone."

Nobody understands that better than Guthrie. Salty and direct, she swears she was voted "most likely to end up at a reform school" when she graduated from Bishop Hogan High in Kansas City in 1967. Guthrie rebelled against her Catholic parents, now deceased, by eloping at 16 with her high school sweetheart. Five years later, Guthrie left her trying marriage. The couple had three children: Teresa, 33, a florist; Phil, who died of sudden infant death syndrome; and Mickey, 29, Giant Step's codirector, who is hearing impaired.

A year after her first union ended, Guthrie married again, helping her new husband build a successful business. Though she says the marriage was difficult, Guthrie stayed for 18 years, largely because her second spouse was good to their son Allen, who was born with a seizure disorder and developmental problems. "I created this center," says Guthrie of Giant Step, which charges a maximum of $135 a week, "as the place I wish I could have taken my son back in 1973." Today, Allen, 26, drives a car, helps out at the center and has inherited his mother's sense of humor. "Mom," he deadpans, is "boring."

Hardly. One day in 1990 while grousing that she could write funnier scripts for Roseanne, her daughters called her bluff. " 'Okay, big shot,' " Guthrie recalls their saying, " 'why don't you write an episode?' " Fourteen hours later she had finished her first. In addition to Roseanne, she sold scripts to In Living Color, Major Dad and Murphy Brown. "But my heart is with the kids," says Guthrie.

Despite a battle with ovarian cancer in 1991, a mild stroke in April and constant money problems, she remains irrepressible. Just when it looks as if the center will not get a desperately needed wheelchair, Guthrie says, "I'll be talking to somebody's dad who knows an Elk who knows a Shriner who knows a Lion." And a wheelchair appears.

Though an exuberant cuddler, Guthrie is not a coddler. On one day this spring the children—some of them in wheelchairs, others with feeding and oxygen tubes—were in the front yard pressing morning-glory and sweet-pea seeds into a dirt garden. "We're all the same," Guthrie says. "We just want to be loved and accepted."

Christina Cheakalos
Pam Grout in Lee's Summit

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