Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Special ed aide inspires student hikers

Hikers with autism, Down syndrome mark trail with memorable moments.

Hiking 800 feet above the azure sea off South Laguna, Louis Wallace turns around at the sound of his name and stops.

"Hey Louis, wait up," leader Anthony Palmeri shouts.

"You're a strong hiker," I yell ahead while standing next to Palmeri, a 25-year-old Mission Viejo resident and graduate of the University of California, Irvine.

Wallace grins.

"Yes I am," he hollers back, raising clenched fists in the air and striking a pose that would make a body builder proud.

It's an honest and beautiful moment in a hike filled with honest, beautiful moments. It's Saturday morning, and Palmeri has invited me along one of his weekly hikes with three young men he has come to know through his job as a special education aide at Tesoro High School in South Orange County.

Today, we're on one of Palmeri's favorite outdoor gems, a wide path called Laguna Ridge Trail that starts at Badlands Park and offers a continuous feed of magnificent views of the coast from Monarch Point.

As we head south, we pass a series of large homes on the left that hug the ridgeline high above Pacific Island Drive. On our right, there is a drop-off that could make lesser men turn to jelly. But the hikers we're with have nerves of steel. They also happen to have what some call special needs. Wallace has Down syndrome.

Andrew Dennison is next to me. His eyes sparkle like the ocean below us, and an easy smile lights up his face. A sturdy 20-year-old, his hands flutter from his stomach to his mouth and to his nose. Then they make the journey again.

Dennison, who lives with his parents in Coto de Caza and is in adult transition at Saddleback College, doesn't seem to say much. But I hardly notice. His happy countenance communicates everything.

As Wallace, 18, saunters back toward the group, Palmeri pauses to share a story of a recent trip to Las Vegas with Dennison's family. As a surprise present for Dennison's mom, Palmeri, one of Dennison's siblings and Dennison had "Happy" – "Birthday" – "Mom" hennaed across their three stomachs to look like tattoos.

Dennison punctuates the story by lifting his shirt to show off the "Mom" on his belly. He points to the nearly faded letters and beams.

Blake Bernardin, 16, is just behind. Like Dennison, Bernardin has autism and says little, but he's careful to stay with the group. I clap the Tesoro High School student on the back for being a solid outdoorsman. A tiny smile betrays his secret pride.

We start down a steep rocky trail that forks off from the groomed path.

"Which way should we choose?" I ask Wallace, a Rancho Santa Margarita resident. He studies the terrain. There is a stream of rocks in the middle. On the right, it's relatively clear save for scattered pebbles. On the left, sharp rocks poke through the ground.

"Over there," Wallace says, pointing left.

I'm impressed. Many people would have taken the path to the right – where the pebbles might as well be marbles. Buried rocks offer solid footing.

For the first few minutes of our hike, I wasn't sure how to talk around the young men. Then I remembered my days teaching Down kids to swim. Be yourself.

We make our way down the trail, holding one another's hands so we don't slip. The young men handle the sketchy section with calm and grace.

As we head back, the breeze dies down and the temperature picks up. We've been hiking more than an hour and everyone is a little sweaty, something which Bernardin mentions with some frequency.

"Try my drink, half water, half Gatorade," I offer.

Bernardin downs half the bottle It's a good reminder we all get a little cranky when we're dehydrated.

After the hike, I talk to the guys' parents. Raising any child is hard work, and these men and women, along with aides like Palmeri, are heroes in my book.

Roseann Bernardin of Trabuco Canyon shares that her son, Blake, loves swimming and riding his beach cruiser bicycle. Still, he struggles with fine motor skills and is only able to write his name.

I inquire about a scar that runs the length of her son's back and discover this teenager who navigated the tricky trail had a 45-degree curvature of the spine until an operation for scoliosis just a few years ago. Doctors inserted 23 screws and two rods. I wonder how I would have done hiking with that much metal.

Dennison's mother, Joni, reports Andrew, like most sons, loves playing video games, eating and riding four-wheel all-terrain "quads."

I mention Andrew didn't talk much during the hike, though clearly he had a great time. I'm a little stunned at what she says next.

"At 28 months, he went into his own world and stopped talking. He doesn't talk."

Reflecting back on the hike, I realize Dennison never said a word and I hadn't noticed.

His heart said it all.

David Whiting's column on people and places appears Tuesdays. He can be reached at 714-796-6869 or dwhiting@ocregister.com

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