With no family or friends, Todd, 23, is one of the loneliest people at the Desert Development Center for mentally and physically handicapped people. A product of drug-using parents, he has never had a single friend, a single visitor. On this day Sean White, a teenager in the Las Vegas Stake, took his hand and did not let go of it all day. He was patient and kind to Todd, and stayed by his side, talking to him and offering his friendship. A simple thing. But after Sean left, Todd quietly told a staff member, “This is the best day I have ever had.”
Sean was one of 300 teenagers from the Las Vegas Stake who participated in a service-oriented youth conference. They conducted a field day patterned after the Special Olympics for some 80 handicapped people at the center where Todd lives. And because they did, at least one young man had the best day of his life.
This service project was a little scary for the youth, and as the field day began, many of them weren’t too sure what to do.
“You two, right here!” called out Sister Taylor, stake Young Women president, matching each resident with the buddy he had been assigned. “And I need a volunteer over here!” As teens and residents were matched, the first tentative attempts of friendship were made. A hand was taken, one arm slipped through another.
“Line up for the Grand March!”
Still feeling nervous, they did. Waiting outside, young people assigned as “coaches” held the equipment for each sports event. Along the sidelines stood other teens appointed as the “cheering section.” And at all the finish lines were more youth, the “huggers,” waiting for the winners to race across the finish lines and into their welcoming arms. All was ready.
The first notes of the march tune boomed over the loudspeaker as Louisa, a mildly retarded resident, proudly led the grand march bearing the American flag. Following her came the youth escorting their newfound friends in an excited, if somewhat ragged, procession. Some needed help walking, others had to be pushed in wheelchairs. All carried balloons.
At the sports field, the balloons were released. “Let the games begin!”
A portable megaphone called racers to the starting lines, painted only days earlier by the youth committee. Fifteen-and fifty-meter races were held. In the wheelchair races, some used their arms, and others turned around and propelled themselves backward with their feet. Walker races were next for those who limped or otherwise could not run. And then the running races were called. Races continued as long as there were participants.
At the finish line Paula Hurtado, 14, helped her special friend, Jamie, to hold the crepe paper ribbon across the road. Jamie has cerebral palsy, is retarded, and has always been confined to a wheelchair. She was unable to enter any of the races, but cheered her brother on to a gold medal.
“She is really special,” said Paula. “I think she is having a lot of fun. I brought her cookies last week. I was kind of scared, but this is fun,” she added.
The other end of the ribbon was held by Amber. Her three buddies for the day were Cindy Hunt, 12, Nicole Hardin, 17, and Jennifer Hurtado, 15. Amber, too, has cerebral palsy. Although she has no use of her limbs, she is learning to walk with a special walker which surrounds her. She understands those who talk to her, but cannot respond without the aid of a special communications board.
“She points to pictures on the board to talk to us. Sometimes we answer, but sometimes we point back to her board,” said Cindy Hunt.
Amber is so handicapped that she will never qualify to enter the real Special Olympics. But on this day she was helped into her walker and heard a hundred kids cheer as she made her way, alone, down the race track after the others had finished. It is the only race she will ever run, the only medal she will ever earn.
In other games, like the tennis ball toss and frisbee throw, participants were given the best of three chances. Since physical impairments ranged from moderate to severe, some balls landed very close; some went wild. The teens assigned as coaches marked distances and chased balls cheerfully.
As the events proceeded, youth were seen everywhere holding hands, hugging, talking with, patting, and assisting the residents.
Some residents did not compete, but watched happily.
Katie Patterson, 12, and Ingrid Millard, 13, were buddies to Kathy. She, too, is wheelchair bound with cerebral palsy and severe retardation. A lack of vital brain chemicals causes her to bite herself. For this reason, her arms were strapped to boards.
“I was scared at first,” said Katie Patterson. “But after I pushed her around for a while I wasn’t scared anymore. She’s nice.”
Ingrid Millard agreed. “We take her to see everything.”
What does Kathy think? Well, she had a big smile, which is her way of telling the world she’s happy.
If the residents of the Desert Development Center were touched, so were the youth. “I’m grateful for home—that I don’t live in a room with no visitors,” said one. Another added, “Sometimes I’ve felt different—until I saw them. Now I realize I just need to do what I should be doing and not worry what others think.” And finally, “It’s like, well, we really did something important today. Not just playing games or something. I feel like I have really accomplished something.”
“This has been a really great youth conference, a different one,” said Heather Ence, 18. “It’s been an eye-opener. I think this has been good for us. There’s more tolerance. We need more of that,” she said, as she held hands with Tony, a severely retarded young man given to aggression (but who responded docilely to Heather’s presence).
As the field day came to an end, everyone gathered for refreshments.
Hon Cropper expressed a feeling shared by many. “It’s the best youth conference we’ve ever attended!”
For the handicapped, gold medals are a reminder of special victories achieved that day. But for the youth, a special victory of another kind was gained: to put aside fears and reach out in friendship to special people, to help make someone’s day.
Putting on a field day for handicapped people means working closely with the group you hope to benefit. The Desert Development Center was contacted three months ahead, and the proposed project presented to them.
Speakers came from the center and spoke at firesides, explaining what youth could expect in behavior, skills, and athletic ability of the handicapped.
Each ward was put in charge of one of the sports events and assigned one housekeeping unit. Youth of the ward were assigned as special “buddies” to one of the residents in their unit.
The youth committee visited the area where the sports events were to be held and prepared the site by painting lines and marking stations. Spray paint and poster board stencils were used to mark the track along a fire service road that ran behind the buildings. The markings formed a permanent contribution to the center and will aid the residents who are preparing for other sports events.
Before the youth conference, each ward arranged one evening to take either dinner or dessert to their unit, letting the youth meet their handicapped friends.
To get in the youth conference dance, each person had to bring a gift marked with the name of his buddy. The gifts, too, followed suggestions and guidelines offered by the staff of the center.
After the field day, each ward took the collected gifts into the units, then stayed while they were opened. Some of the residents with no family had never received a gift before. Gifts included baskets of useful grooming items, posters, and items to decorate their rooms.
This kind of preparation really paid off on the day of the service activity.
“Who are these young people?”
“We’ve never seen teenagers like these!”
These and other comments were common among staff members of the Desert Development Center during and after the special field day.
Brother Danny Holmes-Gull, an LDS worker at the center, explained that they had expected a stress-filled afternoon, with an increase in aggression and other socially unacceptable behavior. “This didn’t happen as we thought it might. Instead of tension, there was an undercurrent of love. It’s hard to describe, but there was a calmness, a caring, that seemed to come from the youth and somehow touch our clients.”
Even some of the most difficult clients responded differently than expected.
Shelly is deaf and blind. She can’t talk, can’t communicate. In her dark world, she only knows how to scream when she gets alarmed or frustrated or disoriented. Staff expected to quietly take her back to her room after a very short time. But she was assigned to three girls as her friends for the day. They held her hand, patted her, touched her, stayed with her constantly.
“We were amazed at Shelly. Those girls managed to communicate a sense of love and caring that penetrated her darkness,” said Brother Holmes-Gull. Shelly was seen quietly laying her head near the girls while they sat on the grass.
Another client, Joanne, was very, very shy. In all her years, she had never found the courage to enter a race. Yet with her buddy’s help, she not only entered, but won a medal.
“In ten years, this is the most successful activity we’ve had,” said one of the staff members.
Youth, too, were changed. According to Ben Wasden, one of the youth conference committee, “I was a little frightened at the outset. I think we all were,” he admits. “But just seeing their faces as they throw a ball, feeling like they have accomplished something. It isn’t what we expected at all. It’s not as frightening as we thought it might be.”
In fact, the youth of the stake are determined not to let it end there.
A class of Beehive girls is planning a return visit.
A class of Laurel girls returned within a week to celebrate the birthday of one of the residents.
One Scout wants to provide a needed resident library as his Eagle project.
And a second Eagle project will be landscaping the park area.
Girls from the stake are seeking to establish a candy-striper program.
One ward has volunteered to act as escorts to their unit as they attend a wrestling match.
Another ward is helping to put on a dance.
It’s no wonder the staff was impressed.