Setting sail for learning

Experiences: Bay Buddies offers special-needs kids a `year's worth of field trips' during a week on the water.

August 17, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Many of the students had rarely been on a boat before. Certainly none had steered a skipjack or hoisted a mainsail to catch a welcome breeze on a sweltering summer day.

So for the 10 special-needs children who boarded the Minnie V. on Thursday and cruised Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the second annual Bay Buddies summer program has been a great ride. It has gotten them out on the water and allowed them to explore new territory.

As the Minnie V. skimmed the placid harbor, some children rendered gleeful verdicts on the excursion. Typical was a lusty "Yeah!" The youngsters who cannot speak found other ways to express themselves: broad smiles, wide eyes or little hops.

"These are experiences that really excite and motivate these students," said Scott Raymond, vice president of education at the Living Classrooms Foundation, a partner in the three-week program that is meant to introduce children with disabilities to a range of new experiences.

The day program is attracting notice beyond Maryland. The National Association of Counties just gave it an achievement award. Among the program's other sponsors are the Calhoun and Jane Bond Fund, the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks and The Arc of Baltimore

All told, 60 students are taking part this year, using the Living Classrooms campus near Fells Point as base. Some are there for a week, others for two. Their ages range from 5 to 19 and their conditions include autism and Down syndrome.

Most activities, which run through the end of next week, are on or near the water. Students are visiting the Maryland Science Center and the National Aquarium. They are also undertaking a paddleboat construction project.

"It's like a school year's worth of field trips in one week," said Erin Kilcullen, a teacher at Ridge Ruxton School, a Baltimore County public school for special-needs students. "It's just nonstop."

A key goal of the program is to help students master basic life skills and to prepare the children for a state assessment that measures those skills. But for the kids, outings such as the Minnie V. ride are all about fun.

"Yeah, I'm ready!" exclaimed Lamar Thomas, a grinning 8-year-old with cerebral palsy, as the 1906 skipjack was about to shove off.

Before long, Lamar and the others were pressed into service by Capt. Tim Wilt. They had to help the crew pull a line to unfurl the mainsail.

"Haul away!" commanded mate Charlie Endris, and the children began tugging as best they could. Lamar could not grasp the line but held his hand out to touch the passing strands.

Within a few minutes the sail puffed out, and the skipjack began gliding toward Canton under a sunny sky dotted with clouds. Now it was time for the students to take turns steering the boat.

Cindy Jager, 18, who has Down syndrome, had her hand on the wheel but her eye on the captain. "He's cute," she said.

"And you're a flirt!" replied Cindy's helper, speech pathologist Cheryl Bootey.

So it went. At one point, the students trained binoculars on the shore and each other. And they breathed in the sweet smells from Domino Sugar. After an hour, it was back to shore for lunch.

As the children walked or rolled off the boat in wheelchairs, some appeared reluctant to give up the sailing life.

Shannon Pease, 18, blew kisses to the crew. Lamar just smiled and said, "Thank you."

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