He doesn't wear a red suit or carry a bag full of toys, but for somehandicapped Edgewood youngsters, Ken Oldendick is just as good as Santa Claus.
Santa might bring them softballs or basketballs, but only Oldendick offers them a chance to enjoy the thrill of actual play.
Last summer, Oldendick started a twice-weekly softball program for handicapped youngsters ages 10 to 20. It was the first organized sports program for youngsters with disabilities in Harford County.
About a dozen youngsters with mental or physical disabilities got their first chance to play organized sports. The softball program was such a success that Oldendick moved on to basketball in the fall.
While Oldendick is quick to spread the credit around, parents of the youths involved can't say enough about his dedication, especially notable since Oldendick does not have a handicapped child.
Oldendick says what keeps him running the program is the fact that the emphasis ison the fun athletics offers, not winning.
"It's wonderful what he's done," said Louise Ballard, whose son Peter plays on the basketball team.
"I know that a lot of us parents who have handicapped kidshave seen them work on different projects in school, and we know ourkids can achieve. Most ordinary people just don't have that concept that the kids can achieve at their own level and improve."
If not for Oldendick, Peter might never have had a chance to play basketball, a sport he follows avidly. The 17-year-old student at John Archer School named the team the Celtics.
While Peter is one of the more advanced basketball players on the team, the youngsters don't have to compete with one another for playing time. Everybody plays, and everybody scores, even if they need a little help from a coach.
One of the reasons Oldendick said he keeps coming back is because the youngsters are having fun. He had quit coaching three years earlier, because, he said, the emphasis was no longer on fun.
Before coaching in youth recreational leagues, he'd coached his own children -- Debbie, 29; Kenny, 28; Danny, 22; and Susie, 20 -- in Edgewood recreation baseball and softball.
But it took only a year for Oldendick to miss coaching. An article about a program for handicapped children within Little League baseball helped Oldendick decide to return to coaching.
"I remember there was a boy on crutches who said his favorite thing was running from third to home and throwing his crutches away and making the slide into home plate," Oldendick said.
"I've always had a soft spot in my heart for kids, especially handicapped kids. I went to the Special Olympics in Joppatowne and was a hugger. That was agreat experience, and that got me thinking about getting more involved."
Oldendick pitched his idea for the handicapped youth teams tothe Edgewood baseball and softball board. Members liked the idea andgave him the green light.
He hasn't had any major problems since.In fact, Oldendick has
more volunteers than he knows how to keep busy sometimes.
Fred Gump, of Edgewood, helps him run the program.About 80 percent of parents with children in the program also turn out to help. During softball season, the parents even played in the games with their youngsters.
"We really appreciate what he's done, and the kids do too in their own way. They wouldn't miss it for the world," Ballard said.
A basketball session begins Jan. 9. While his wife, Carole, does some recruiting for him, Oldendick is always looking for more youngsters to play. For information, call Oldendick, 676-2816 (evening) or 288-8737 (day).