This camp makes sports real winner

July 29, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

EIGHT CHILDREN in the water. Eight children learning to swim.

"Chin up and look at me!" Gerry Herman tells a boy trying to master the backstroke.

"Reach and pull!" Herman's wife, Gwena, shouts to a young girl learning the crawl.

The scene could be taking place at any summer camp in Baltimore. But as the children leave the indoor pool, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary program.

Some of the children use wheelchairs and walkers. Others require arm supports or leg braces. And still others who are ambulatory walk with a limp.

These are children with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida and other physical disabilities.

Children attending a motor-development camp for ages 3 to 7 at the Bennett Institute.

Children learning to play sports.

As recently as 12 years ago, a physically challenged child in Baltimore had no way of participating in a comprehensive sports program.

Today, that same child not only can play sled hockey, wheelchair basketball and a variety of other sports at Bennett, but also win national championships and go on to compete in college.

The Bennett program was the brainchild of Dr. Charles Silberstein, the former Orioles physician who specializes in pediatric orthopedics, with a particular interest in the physically challenged.

Silberstein hired the Hermans to make his dream a reality in 1989, and the husband-and-wife team has had a greater impact on the community than any baseball or football player.

Parents speak of the Hermans almost as if they are miracle workers, and for good reason. Every day at Bennett offers lessons in the redemptive and healing power of sports.

"They're probably the most dedicated people that I've ever met who have worked with handicapped children," said Nona Biser of Baltimore, whose son, Vincent, 12, started at Bennett when he was 22 months old.

Gerry Herman, 43, is gentle and soft-spoken, cradling boys' heads against his chest as he teaches them the back float.

Gwena Herman, 37, is more demonstrative, announcing a keep-your-face-in-the-water contest as if she were Dave Johnson calling the Kentucky Derby.

They are patient. They are passionate.

And their teams, the Bennett Blazers, are national powers.

Last month, the Blazers won the large-team championship at the United States Cerebral Palsy Athletic Association Junior Nationals in Des Moines, Iowa.

Among the 16 team members: Colby Bratlie, 6, and Sydney Bolen, 5.

"A lot of able-bodied kids that age can't swim 25 yards and compete," Gwena Herman said.

Still, the mission of the Bennett Institute isn't to build an athletic dynasty. It's "to teach children they can ... before they think they cannot."

"Sometimes, it takes six months. Sometimes, it takes six years," Gerry Herman said. "But anytime there's a tangible success, it's a multifaceted accomplishment.

"If you can teach an athlete to swim, the family feels better about integrating him into things. It's not, `Johnny can't ski. We can't go skiing.' It actually works in reverse. We teach kids to ski, and then their families learn to ski. It's no longer a barrier."

The concept makes perfect sense, but the Hermans might never have introduced it to Baltimore if not for a Massachusetts law that prohibits state employees from working for their spouses.

The Hermans are Massachusetts natives, and they previously worked at the Massachusetts Hospital School - Gerry as a supervisor, Gwena as one of his recreational therapists.

They married in August 1988, right around the time that Silberstein was planning the Bennett Institute.

They now have two children.

From the beginning, it was a perfect fit - the Hermans wanted to work with children who were physically, but not cognitively challenged.

They started the program with only four children. Today, they serve more than 125, ages 2 to 18, some of whom travel from different states.

"We have children who have gone through years of traditional physical therapy who were not motivated to do much of anything," Silberstein said. "They just got burned out.

"But we've had kids who have gone to Bennett and blossomed, once they got in that environment. [The Hermans] make it competitive. They make it fun."

Nona Biser didn't know what to expect when she brought Vincent to Bennett at 22 months.

But Gerry Herman said the best time for children to start is at an early age.

Vincent Biser turned out to be an excellent example.

"He was very shy when he was little," his mother said. "When he got there, he would be upset. He wouldn't want to participate.

"Gwena works especially well with the younger ones. She never gave up on him. She worked with him until he had the confidence that he could do everything. And it was not an easy task."

It rarely is at Bennett, but the Hermans never stop.

They might be in the pool, Gerry with the boys, Gwena with the girls.

They might be in the gym, supervising a game of wheelchair basketball.

Wherever they are, no obstacle is insurmountable and no child is without hope.

Every day at Bennett, little miracles occur.

Every day is another lesson in the power of sports.

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