A driving force in helping youths Savage resident offers auto racing therapy

April 19, 1996|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- They come to the NASCAR racetrack as victims of physical and sexual abuse, as recovering drug addicts and alcoholics -- teen-agers and young adults searching for mentors and a new direction in life.

Savage resident Corrinne Arnold's job is to help them find what they're looking for. And few people are better suited for the job. She loves people and auto racing, and she knows pain.

In 1985, she was struck by a car passing through a line at a Jessup vehicle inspection station, where she was an inspector. The accident left Ms. Arnold,then 20, with ruptured discs in her spine and fragments of bone floating for years in her spinal canal.

It has taken more than 10 years for her to recover, and sometimes she still hurts -- physically and emotionally.

"I may not have gone through the kinds of problems they have gone through, but I try to use my experiences to help them through their problems," Ms. Arnold said. "I really enjoy what I do. It's like therapy."

Ms. Arnold helps the youths through an organization called Freedom Village, U.S.A., an interdenominational group based in Lakemont, N.Y., dedicated to helping neglected children. She focuses on the 15-year-old organization's "In the Pits" program, a NASCAR mentoring program that started five years ago.

Terry Jackson, director of the In the Pits program and administrative assistant for Freedom Village, said the program is important because "a lot of the kids actually have no home to go to. It's a different world we're raising children in now. These kids are able to show what God has done for them."

Ms. Arnold and members of the program arrived at the Darlington, S.C., International Raceway to meet their racing heroes and help prepare cars for Winston Cup racing.

Her latest In the Pits group includes 23 young men, mostly ages 15 to 19. They apply to the program after hearing Freedom Village's television or radio programs or are referred by judges, social workers, pastors or friends.

And then Ms. Arnold matches them with the NASCAR drivers.

"She's kind of like the pied piper," said NASCAR race driver and mentor Ted Musgrave, a five-year Winston Cup racer. "She's the nanny, more or less, of all the boys. It's a tough job keeping track of all those kids. She's got her hands full."

Among those in the program is Jason Sanders, 19, of Traverse City, Mich., a victim of child abuse.

Although he entered counseling at 7, his troubles continued. He was placed in psychiatric wards in fourth and fifth grades. In eighth grade he attempted suicide -- and was sent to yet another psychiatric ward.

Now, because of Freedom Village and Ms. Arnold's help, Mr. Sanders said he dreams of a career in auto racing.

"She's been a real big help to us," said Mr. Sanders, who joined the program in 1991. "She's a good friend and [Freedom Village] is a really good opportunity."

The program also has turned around 22-year-old Brendan Kilroy's life.

Mr. Kilroy joined the program in 1993 after a seven-year drug addiction that led him to become a thief, he said.

"I've been in state facilities, done jail time," said Mr. Kilroy, who was pumping up tires at the Darlington International Raceway. "It doesn't work. Freedom Village concentrates on changing the life from the inside out."

Mr. Kilroy, who now oversees a dormitory at Freedom Village's headquarters in Lakemont, praised Ms. Arnold's knowledge of cars and her ability to communicate with young people.

"She's like a mom," he said. "I don't know where we would be without her."

A 1982 graduate of Howard High School, where she studied auto mechanics and was a student government and class president, Ms. Arnold always has loved cars and all living beings -- human and animal.

"She found a turtle once that had been shot with a BB gun," recalled her mother, Jan Arnold, of Savage. "It had maggots in him. We took him in and cleaned him up. She kept him for a year until he got better and then let him go."

Ms. Arnold studied at Lincoln Technical Institute, hoping to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a race car driver. After graduating from Lincoln Technical in 1984, she went to work for the Jessup inspection station. And she would take almost any opportunity she could find to be involved in NASCAR racing.

But then her hopes were dashed when the motorist struck her. The accident led to arthritis in her back and hip. And she had five operations before the problems were fixed in December.

But it never was easy. At times she couldn't carry a small stack of books or sit down very long before the pain became unbearable. She often had to walk with a cane and was hunched over because of back and hip problems.

"They would call me the bag lady," Ms. Arnold said. "I got to the point I felt I couldn't do anything."

But she always has had a knack for dealing with people. "She can get anybody to do anything," said Ellen Waff, a Savage resident who has worked with Ms. Arnold on such projects as the town's annual community festival.

So when officials at Freedom Village asked her in 1992 to join the organization, it seemed a perfect fit. They wanted her to do public relations and counseling for the In the Pits program, which was just a year old at the time.

With her help, the program grew from just two teens to two dozen and the list of mentors also grew to 24 NASCAR teams, as well as ESPN and TNN cable television network crews.

And Ms. Arnold continues to improve, too.

"It'll never be 100 percent," she said, with a warm smile. "But I can do a lot more now than before, and I'm thankful."

Pub Date: 4/19/96

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