In the Wild, Handicapped Gain Confidence

Sprout

New York Times

By: Glenn Collins

”All right, there it is,” said Anthony DiSalvo, eyeing the green and gold tent he had just raised with the help of two campers. ”Take a look at how your house looks inside.”

Tentatively, 25-year-old Alan Merritt and 34-year-old Richard McIntosh peered in. Mr. McIntosh crouched and poked his head into the tent. ”Looks comfortable,” he said.

”Why did we put the tent here?” asked Mr. DiSalvo. ”Well, I’ll tell you. We put the tent here because this area tends to become a swamp when it rains.”

He squinted up at the hazy sun and sniffed the humid, woodsy air. ”And boy, is it going to rain,” he said. The forecast was for sun followed by showers last weekend as Mr. DiSalvo and three of his assistants took 10 mentally retarded New Yorkers for an overnight camping trip to Wawayanda State Park in the wilds of northern New Jersey. Mr. DiSalvo is the director of Sprout, a three-year-old private, nonprofit organization that believes in the therapeutic benefit of adventuresome recreation for the mentally and physically handicapped.

Sprout has taken mentally retarded adults and emotionally disturbed teen-agers on cross-country skiing weekends in the Catskills, on white-water canoe trips on the Delaware River and on hiking, camping and backpacking forays to upstate New York, Pennsylvania and Long Island. This summer the organization will take three groups on 10-day journeys to the Great Smoky Mountains and the Knoxville World’s Fair.

”They’ve always been underestimated,” said Mr. DiSalvo of his charges. ”Traditionally, recreation for special-needs populations meant arts and crafts, maybe swimming. But they’re capable of so much more. Out here, they are stretching themselves, doing things they never did before and most likely never thought themselves capable of doing.” A History Is Recounted

A case in point was Fred Parker, a friendly 29-year-old who told his story during a dusty hike from Campsite 3 to Lake Wawayanda. He spent his childhood institutionalized in Willowbrook Hospital on Staten Island, he said. ”Some doctor told my mother I needed to be there, that I could never do anything for myself,” he said. ”Well, it was a mistake. I was smart enough to be outside Willowbrook. But they’d given up on me.”

He told of how a counselor took an interest in him and, in Mr. Parker’s opinion, saved his life. Now Mr. Parker works five days a week in a janitorial job, shops and cooks for himself, lives in a Park Slope apartment of the Association for the Help of Retarded Children and goes to movies with the money he earns. ”Last week I went to see ‘Rocky III,’ ” he said.

But Mr. Parker had never before seen the rowboat that was ready to float him away from the beach at Lake Wawayanda. In fact, Mr. Parker had never been in a rowboat before, he said, and he held back. After some good-natured encouragement from the Sprout leaders Josue Torres, Douglas Koeber and Gail Cushman, he consented to sit in the boat with two campers and a leader. And by the time he got back, Mr. Parker didn’t want to leave the boat.

This happens frequently, said Mr. DiSalvo. ”You can see real changes, over time,” he added. ”The one who’s never been on skis before will be the first one out on the trail the next trip.”

He believes there are other benefits. ”Getting outdoors does a lot for the people who see our clients,” he said. ”Many people feel uncomfortable around the mentally retarded. But they see our people doing exciting things and having fun, and it changes the stereotype of mentally retarded people. They are, most of all, people, who have feelings, too.”

The campers were not shy in airing those feelings. ”Sometimes people make fun of us,” said 47-year-old Barbara Hay. ”I don’t know why. I guess they just don’t understand.” Miss Hay lives at a Young Adult Institute residence in Brooklyn and takes the subway every weekday to a job in Manhattan serving food in a cafeteria.

”We can’t help it, that’s the way we were born,” said Mr. Parker. ” ‘Retarded’ is just a word; they can say it all they want, but I just let it pass me by.”

Dark clouds drifted in over the park’s 11,000 acres as the other boats returned to the beach and Mr. DiSalvo described the origin of his organization. ”Sprout could have been played up as an ‘outwardbound’ program for singles, or as a rustic Club Med, but that would have bored us,” said Mr. DiSalvo, 31 years old, who used to be a New York City high-school teacher.

He was on the staff of the American Youth Hostels and trained leaders to guide bicycle trips in America and abroad. Mr. DiSalvo, who grew up in the Bronx, said he tired of working with upper-middleclass youths who, he said, ”already had so much.”

”I felt someone should be working with special-needs populations and inner-city kids,” he said. ”I was shocked when I realized that no one was doing it. But competition never has been one of our problems.”

He began Sprout in 1979 with friends from his hosteling days, and has 30 leaders he calls upon to work for $20 a day on group trips. In three years, Sprout has taken more than 1,000 adults and teen-agers on excursions.

Mr. DiSalvo’s operation has no foundation support or government subsidies, but he is concerned that Federal cuts will affect the use of his group by publicly financed agencies.

Nevertheless, Sprout keeps growing by word of mouth, he said. Last year, he began organizing trips for youths from Daytop Village, the drug rehabilitation organization, and he will soon offer trips for the elderly and the physically disabled.

Agencies, mentally retarded people or their families pay for the trips -from $17 to $22 a person for one-day excursions to as much as $750 for the Knoxville World’s Fair journey. The price includes food, transportation and insurance. (Organizations may write to Sprout at 204 West 20th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011, or telephone Mr. DiSalvo at 874-7348.) Dinner in the Rain

At Wawayanda, the rains came and continued until dinnertime, when, under a tarpaulin beside a crackling fire, the campers began singing ”Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” By the light of a Coleman lantern they consumed noodles fettucine, garlic bread, salad and steaming ears of corn cooked in the embers.

By 9 P.M. the rain had abated, and the group went for a hike in the darkness. Some of the campers trudged timidly at first, but soon they were shouting and laughing. ”Hey everyone, look at that lightning bug,” said Mr. Koeber, one of the Sprout leaders.

”That’s no lightning bug, that’s a mosquito with a flashlight,” said Mr. DiSalvo. Soon the campers hiked back to the joys of the campfire, the cabin tent, the backwoods commode and, at bedtime, the warmth of sleeping bags in the 40-degree weather.

It rained hard and steadily on the seven Sprout tents all night. Next morning steaming hot coffee, doughnuts and cereal were eaten under the protective tarpaulin, as the rain continued to fall. ”I feel great,” said 34-year-old Ervin Nash, stretching happily as he stood near the fire in his glistening poncho. ”I wish this weekend would last two weeks,” said 45-year-old Audrey Accordino, who lives in a group residence run by the Association for the Help of Retarded Children in the Bronx.

”So, do you like camping?” 45-year-old Mitchell Winokur asked a visitor. ”I like camping,” he continued, grinning inscrutably. Mr. Winokur is round and Buddha-like, lives in a Young Adult Institute residence in Brooklyn and the sheets of rain that streamed down on the bonfire seemed to touch some great fund of inner amusement in him.

What did he like most, he was asked, the boating, the fellowship? ”To be alive,” he said, grinning as the raindrops dripped from his nose.

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