Date: 1988-11-01

Washington Post
Author: Veronica T. Jennings; Washington Post Staff Writer

The needs of special children are never far from the mind of Sally Clemons.

Yesterday, as she and her family searched for valuables in the burnt-out hulk of the Ellicott City house where two of her children died in a fire early Sunday, Clemons' thoughts turned to the needs of foreign-born and hard-to-place children, a friend said.

Noting the presence of reporters and bystanders, Clemons said she hoped that the attention could bring out people to adopt other children, said her close friend Fran Ziegler.

Clemons' love for children, friends and work associates said, has been a driving force in her personal and professional life in the last decade. It was that love that led to her form an agency that helps arrange adoptions for hard-to-place children and to help in the placement of hundreds of other children.

And that is why Sunday's tragedy is especially painful for Clemons and her husband David, friends and neighbors said. The couple's split-level house had become an international haven over the years for the 15 children they had adopted. Many of them were children no one else wanted to adopt: those with emotional problems, learning disabilities and physical handicaps.

While the Clemonses were away on vacation, two of their sons died in Sunday's fire, trapped in an upstairs bedroom by the fast-moving blaze, fire officials said. The Maryland medical examiner's office in Baltimore said yesterday the brothers, Michael Clemons, 8, and James, 5, died of smoke and soot inhalation. The older brother was a third-grader at Centennial Lane Elementary School and the younger attended a special education class at Longfellow Elementary School, a school official said.

A 15-year-old youth was being questioned about the fire, which police and fire investigators said was set. The teen-ager is still undergoing psychiatric evaluation at Howard County General Hospital in Columbia, a police spokesman said yesterday.

Two adult baby sitters and four teen-age children survived the fire, officials said. The Clemonses and two children were on vacation in Aruba when the fire occurred, causing $250,000 damage, authorities said.

The fire, reported about 1:41 a.m. Sunday, started in a downstairs bedroom, fire officials said. John Earp, a state fire investigator, said yesterday officials won't discuss how the fire was started. Fire officials are unsure whether a working smoke detector was in the house, although survivors told investigators there was one on the second floor, Earp said.

Except for a brief visit yesterday to the gutted house to retrieve some clothes, photographs and diplomas, the Clemons family remained secluded at their grandparents' home in Bel Air, friends said.

Still, the aura of Sally Clemons was present.

A social worker, Clemons began her personal mission to help foreign-born children many years ago, friends said. In 1979, she set up the international adoption service for Catholic Charities in Baltimore, a spokeswoman said. Clemons traveled to South Korea, South America and India to bring back impoverished children, many with disabilities, for adoption in the United States.

"She has a very caring and open heart," said Marjorie Margolies, a close friend of Clemons' who has adopted 11 children. Many times, Clemons, unable to find American parents for the foreign-born children, would take the children in, adopting them herself, Margolies said.

In the spring of 1987, Clemons founded ACORN (Adoption Counseling Organization and Resource Network), a service in Columbia to encourage American families to adopt foreign children with special needs, said office manager Christine Wixom. The nonprofit agency has handled about 50 adoptions in Columbia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia, Wixom said


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