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  •   Olympic Achievements Out of Reach

        William Thornton
    William Thornton gazes out the front door of his group home. He would like to attend a Special Olympics session, but his group home – like most in the District – hasn't taken its residents to the program in years.
    (Carol Guzy – The Washington Post)
    By Katherine Boo
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, March 14, 1999; Page A24

    William Thornton, 46, is doing what he does most Saturdays: sitting on the broken front porch of his group home, watching Metro buses go by. And in this way he is representative of other retarded wards of the District of Columbia.

    Most D.C. group-home residents aren't regularly clocked on the head, aren't getting molested or locked in closets. They're nodding off in front of the TV, doing nothing on the porch. And that is where one of America's most warmly regarded private charities is supposed to come in.

    "Are they still doing Special Olympics?" Thornton wants to know.

    The charity started by the Kennedy family has traditionally been a sanctuary for the District's mentally disabled: the most important recreational activity of their lives. But the pervasive problems in the group-home system have left the altruists as discouraged as Thornton.

    In the last four years, Special Olympics officials say, most of the District's group homes have abandoned the charity's free programs rather than spend a few dollars to transport their residents to donated gyms.

    Not far from Thornton's porch, at Gonzaga College High School, the Special Olympics until recently ran a weekly program specially designed for group-home residents. It featured a veteran Special Olympics staff and a crew of pumped-up student volunteers, ready to help improve motor skills and increase self-esteem. Many weeks, it also featured not a single retarded person.

    In February, the Gonzaga program was canceled altogether for lack of participants.

    A program at Sidwell Friends School was canceled, too.

    As are all this year's events for the city's most profoundly retarded at the Special Olympics' Summer Games: events like the assisted ball kick and the log roll, which end in hugs and praise.

    "I am so frustrated," says Tom Kling, the director of sports administration for D.C. Special Olympics. "We can't get the group homes to deliver the clients. It's as if they look at these people and say, 'How much money will we get for doing the bare minimum?' And the services that make the clients happy aren't part of the equation."

    In fact, the math is more perverse than that. According to a Post examination of city records, some group homes have promised the city that their residents would participate in the Special Olympics. Such claims about serving clients are offered to justify requests for money from the city.

    For the retarded, missing the Special Olympics is more than a matter of sports. The competitions are seen as a critical inoculation against regression. Thornton was once a candidate for independent living. Nowadays, his loss of mental acuity is a running theme in city files. Not enough stimulation. Considerable strides in the wrong direction.

    Thornton can't remember the dishes he once knew how to cook. Now it's just "scrambled eggs and boiled whites." Counting change: That lately eludes him. He can remember crossing a Special Olympics finish line, a long, long time ago.

    Smiling, he struggles to his gout-swollen feet. He does a victory dance, to the memory of cheers.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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