A Chance to Be Normal
For 4 housemates, Special Olympics provides a bond
June 7, 2009
By Jonathan Pitts
Lightning had flickered in a darkening sky, so practice was officially canceled at Old Mill Senior High in Millersville late Wednesday afternoon. But that didn't stop three longtime buddies from taking to the oval track and starting up their laps, just as they'd planned.
Andrew Rickard, 36, long-legged in a T-shirt and belted khaki shorts, set a fast pace. A cheerful Bobby Brick, 37, followed close behind, joshing with onlookers as he jogged along. Burly Marty Valaske, 39, unmoved by the excitement building around him, simply strolled in a lane all his own.
"These guys do like to push each other, in their own ways," said Adil Moutanabbih, a volunteer track and field coach with Special Olympics Maryland. Moutanabbih, 27, was helping the trio from Arnold train for the Special Olympics Maryland Summer Games, the annual sports extravaganza being held at Towson University this weekend.
Rickard, Brick and Valaske aren't merely three of the 12,000 competitors who were preparing to flock to the meet from all over Maryland starting Friday. In some ways, they represent what's best about the Special Olympics movement, 41 years old this year and more popular and more widely known than ever.
Along with another friend, Paul Day, 35, they've taken part in the summer games for almost three decades. They've been housemates in a split-level on Ternwing Court for seven years, a house as sports-friendly as anything you might find on a college fraternity row. Their camaraderie, nurtured since childhood, suggests how sports can foster teamwork, how teamwork can foster confidence.
"This setup has been so good for each of the guys," says Joan Raleigh, the special-needs counselor who lives and works with them during the week. "I call this my 'go-go' house. The guys just never stop. Sports, especially the Special Olympics, is a huge part of it."
In her job as a special-needs counselor, Raleigh, 59, is equal parts life coach, cook, mother hen, interpreter and comic foil for the group. She drives each resident to as many as six Special Olympics practices a week year-round. Offering a guided tour of the house, she shares her reflections.
Valaske, who lives in a room festooned with sports posters, has Down syndrome. He also has "a wry sense of humor" and "the sexiest legs in the house," Raleigh says, adding that the stocky swimmer and runner can never be hurried - usually because he's deep in thought.
"Recently, he was so slow getting ready for an event, the others picked him up, carried him out and loaded him in the van," she says. "Do they know each other or what?"
Day, like the other two, has a developmental disability, though physicians consider him a high-functioning special-needs adult. Day is so shy he was once reluctant to come out of his room.
Last month, he was named "King of the Dance" at a neighborhood party, a memory that inspires gales of laughter as a visitor looks at his trophy.
"We couldn't be happier with how far Paul has come," says his father, Louis Day, a retired assistant principal in the Anne Arundel school system. "He has come out of himself much more since [living here]. You're always looking for progress."
Later, at the dining-room table, Brick boasts of his first-place finish in a recent golf tournament (he alternated shots with a Special Olympics coach). Rickard mentions a recent decision to drop softball in favor of track.
"It wasn't enough exercise," he says. "I like to run."
It's just the kind of give-and-take the men's parents hoped to cultivate when they decided years ago, on the advice of experts, to get the jump on the notoriously slow-moving state and federal bureaucracies in the world of special-needs care.
More than 20 years ago, they put their sons' names on a "critical-needs" housing list.
"You can wait for years and years," says Raleigh, an employee of Gallagher Securities, a nonprofit subsidiary of Catholic Charities. (Gallagher owns the Ternwing house and others in the county.) "There are waiting lists to be on waiting lists."
Ternwing didn't open up until 2001. The parents and "boys," as their supporters often call them, jumped at the chance.
It's a rare setup, the only special-needs home in Anne Arundel County in which four friends, and only four friends, live together full time, Raleigh says. In many cases, disabled adults are lucky to have a chance to live with one person they already know.
The arrangement also offered a pretty fair answer to a question that haunts most parents of people with disabilities: "What will happen when we're not around anymore?"
"In many cases, it's a double-whammy for the disabled child, who's probably an adult by then," says Day's mother, Louisa Day, 67, of Annapolis. "When the last parent passes away, not only does that child suffer that loss, but he or she can end up in a new home all of a sudden, probably among strangers."
Living together in the house, the parents are sure, has cemented a kind of kinship that will soften such blows.
With support from Gallagher and, by extension, the state, the "boys" have been able to live as largely independent adults. All have day jobs - they range from custodial work at BWI Marshall Airport to shifts at McDonald's - and in the evenings, between making phone calls to family members or listening to music, they scrub floors, work in the yard or do their own laundry.
"Not too long ago," says Kelley Schniedwind, a spokeswoman for Special Olympics Maryland, "guys in their situation would have lived a more isolated life, without much physical activity. We've come a long way in the past 20 or 30 years."
And the Special Olympics have done more than give them a chance to compare their ever-growing piles of medals.
Brick got the journey started at 6, when he decided to try out for swimming. "It kind of surprised people, seeing this little kid go right down the pool," says his mother, Judy Brick, who works in an Annapolis art gallery when she's not helping the other parents support the house - a process that has turned the parents, too, into friends.
Over the next four years, Bobby Brick amassed a collection of medals. The others got involved as well, and the four - students at Central Special Education Center in Edgewater, a county school for developmentally disabled youth - challenged one another while always looking forward to the fun of the next meet.
"It's what they lived for then, and it's what they live for now," says Judy Brick. "Special Olympics has really been a blessing for all of us."
As gathering clouds threaten the last practice before the Games, Raleigh herds the three into a van (Day's parents are taking him out to dinner) and steers into rush-hour traffic on the way to Old Mill High.
A sense of excitement grows as the athletes name the events they'll take part in this weekend - mostly sprints and distance runs - as well as other delights they look forward to.
"The parade!" says Brick. (He means Friday's Olympic-style opening ceremonies, complete with an appearance by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.)
"The party," says Rickard (a Saturday night dance for all competitors).
"The pool," says Valaske, who's registered for some swim events.
As they arrive at the track, the clouds have parted enough that Moutanabbih and another coach, Eva Tucholsky of Annapolis, agree it's safe for them to do a few laps after all. She watches as they circle the cinders.
Like many volunteers, she has coached as many as five sports a week - in addition to working a full-time job. "I don't think about the dis," she says, as if in explanation. "I think about the 'ability.' Look at them go."
Rickard is out front, jaw jutting as he lengthens his stride. Brick slows down to a trot every so often but completes his mile and a half in 18 minutes.
Valaske? He walks the entire six laps, never looking up as he churns his arms and legs.
"Remember, Marty never hurries," says Raleigh with a fond laugh as she watches from the sidelines. "It's one of the things that make him special."