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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Spreading magic, smiles
"The Balloonatic" brings the gift of laughter to a group of children with special needs.
By MICHELE MILLER
Published July 11, 2007
Tim Grindal, 16, of Clearwater smiles as Russell Douton, a.k.a. "Windy" the magician makes a dove appear during a magic act for participants of the Pasco Association for Challenged Kids' P.A.C.K. camp.
[Times photo: Stephen J. Coddington]
[Times photo: Stephen J. Coddington]
John Singleton, 11, of New Port Richey (center) laughs during a magic show put on by Russell Douton, a.k.a. "Windy" the magician for participants of the Pasco Association for Challenged Kids' P.A.C.K. camp.
NEW PORT RICHEY – No doubt about it, "The Balloonatic" is a keeper.
That would be Russell Douton, 79, who also goes by the stage name "Windy."
On Wednesday, the candy-striped magician with the white straw hat and handlebar mustache waxed to perfection was busy doing his shtick, pulling a blue-dyed Java dove out of 16-year-old Ricky Buckman's ear.
And a yellow one out of the magician's trusty, glittery color detector.
And a green one from under a multicolored handkerchief held by a gap-toothed 4-year-old named Leland Seaton, who was very happy to be a volunteer from the audience.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Boomer - short for "Boomerang" - appeared. The red, white and blue fan-tailed dove flew out toward the audience then veered right back to Douton's arm.
For more than 45 minutes Tuesday morning, about 30 kids at the PACK camp squealed, laughed and clapped at Douton's antics, which included twisting balloons into shapes of giraffes and pink elephants. The Pasco Association of Challenged Kids has run the camp for 10 years now, providing the only summer program for children with special needs.
Tim Grindall, 16, was having a heck of a time. So were Jacob Peckam and Haley Brookins, both 6.
And while a few wandered off to do something else, they all mostly paid attention.
"I can't believe it," said camp co-director Jane Johnston, as she laughed along with the rest. "He's keeping their attention. It's really difficult to keep their attention."
Now that's magic.
Particularly when you're playing to an audience that ranges in age from 4 to 22 and has a variety of emotional and physical disabilities.
Tim Grindall has cerebral palsy. Ricky Buckman has Down's syndrome. So does Lauren Kanos, age 6. Leland Seaton is developmentally disabled.
If not for Barry and Paula Cohen, these kids would not have a summer camp that includes games, arts and crafts, water days and special appearances from a magician, dancers and the Pasco County Sheriff's Department.
The Cohens started the camp out of necessity when they realized there was no place for their son Gregory, now 19, to go once school let out for summer break.
The Cohens have had some help from state Sen. Mike Fasano, Publix Super Markets, LaneGlo Bowling and the state, which has funded the program for nine years. Others, such as local businessman Gary Blackwell and the Pasco Pediatric Foundation, also pitched in back in 2003, the year the state didn't provide funding.
That funding pays for housing the camp in the gym at River Ridge Springs Presbyterian Church and employing a qualified staff of 20. Parents are asked to pay a $60 fee for the five-week program, said Mrs. Cohen, "for snacks and supplies."
That's not a big deal to parents such as Jim and Barb Konrad, whose son, Greg, 18, who has Down's syndrome, and has been attending camp for nine years. It's been a family affair for them. Barb serves as camp co-director and Jim as a counselor. Their 22-year-old son Garrett has also helped out over the years.
"It's such a joy that they have a place to hang out," said Mrs. Konrad. "It's mostly for socialization."
"Salvation," is the word Barbara Alvarez uses. Her daughter, Elizabeth, 11, is autistic and needs constant care and attention. "During the school year you have some balance," said Alvarez. "In the summer there is no balance. It's all Elizabeth."
PACK camp keeps Elizabeth bonded to her peer group, which is essential for autistic children, said Alvarez. "It helps me be a better parent, knowing she's there and I can go off and work a job or teach Vacation Bible School. It gives parents a break that they truly need."
That's why the Cohens hope to see PACK go for another decade, even though their own son has outgrown the camp and now attends the Red Apple School.
"I'm proud we've been here for 10 years and sad at the same time," said Mrs. Cohen. "There's still no competition. You'd think after 10 years someone else would step up. But there's nothing else out there for these kids."
"We hope to be here again next year," she said.
And the Balloonatic? He'll be back, too. He's a keeper.
Michele Miller can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6251 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.