The two schools are only about six feet apart at one point, but in some ways they might as well be on different planets. At Kilmer Intermediate School in Vienna, the halls are filled with a rush of adolescents, boisterous and gushing with life. There's a math test tomorrow, someone is worrying about a pimple and nearly everyone loves the Bee Gees.
At the Kilmer Center next door, wheelchairs, temporarily abandoned, clutter a doorway. Recently Susan, 13, learned how to use a toothbrush -- a small triumph.
Two schools -- worlds apart. But a narrow human bridge connects them. This is a story about love.
That's what Carolyn Ruff, a 13-year-old Kilmer Intermediate student, learned when she first began volunteering at the Kilmer Center, a school for handicapped students.
"The kids are so sweet," she says. "They come and want to hug you and kiss you. They need to be loved just like everyone else."
Just moments before, some of Carolyn's classmates recounted a different attitude about children at the center. But Carolyn's comments about her experiences working at the Kilmer Center seemed to stun the teen-agers.
"I didn't know that they want to love somebody," mused Gary Comi. "They have feelings too."
Two blond girls stopped giggling. "They are human and should be treated like anyone," said one of the girls.
This kind of dialogue is exactly what officials at both schools hoped for when they set up the volunteer program shortly after the Kilmer Center opened 18 months ago. At the outset, 28 Kilmer Intermediate students worked 1 1/2 hours a week for 10 weeks helping teachers at the center. s
Because of the success of that program, more than 100 intermediate school students have worked at the center. Officials hope those volunteers will share their new-found understanding of handicapped people with their peers.
"It's mutually beneficial," says Joan C. Jendreau, principal at the Kilmer Center. "We get help in the classroom and long-range help for the handicapped in the community through an understanding public."
Robert P. Bowers, guidance director at the intermediate school, echoed those sentiments. "The volunteers get to know that these are kids with feelings just like they have. They find out these kids are not weird and the word gets around. That's what we wanted."
Words like normal and abnormal tend to lose their meaning when one sees two boys tossing a ball back and forth. One is Walter Seaberg, a 13-year-old volunteer. The other is Kilmer Center student Joe, a good-looking boy with blond hair and pale blue eyes, who is a few years younger than Walter.
The first few times Walter came to volunteer at the center, Joe was taciturn, but slowly he warmed up. "He started talking to me about airplanes," said Walter, glancing briefly at Joe, who seemed upset that the game was interrupted.
Walter admits that he was nervous on his first visit. It didn't help much when Joe collapsed with a seizure, his limbs convulsing uncontrolably.
"I thought it was my fault," said Walter, recalling the incident with anxiety.
Scared -- that's how all the volunteers seem to feel on their first day at the center. Then they want to cry.
"I felt sorry that they can't be normal like us," said Melanie Black. "Thank God that I'm normal."
Melanie said she wants to cry when she thinks about a student at the center who is blind and confined to a wheelchair. "One handicap is bad enough," she said.
"Two hundred handicapped children are overwhelming no matter how well you prepare the students," said Nancy E. Allgire, the center's psychologist, who admitted that she was scared on her first day.
"This is the first time that some of these youngsters (from the intermediate school) are put in a position of helping others. At this age, they're so concerned with being accepted by their peer group. Often this is the first time they see people who are different than they are," said Allgire.
The volunteers help by playing games and instructing center students. Melinda Michaels, a cheerful redhead with freckles, recently tried to teach five center students the difference between long and short. Following the teacher's instructions, Melinda gave the student's Play-Doh and told them to roll it to make it longer.
For Melinda, the experience of volunteering at the center has been a lesson about the long and short ends of the stick.Often, she says, society short-changes the handicapped.
"I used to play jokes on the retarded kids," she said. "I don't make fun of them any more. Now I feel sorry for them.I like them. Before I used to stare when I saw them in a shopping center. Now I try to help them. During the week I can't wait to come back here."
For Kristin Brenner, working at the center was depressing at first. And she wondered what it would be like to be handicapped.
One evening she shut the door to her room, told everyone in the house to leave her along, and closed her eyes. She kept them shut for a long time, feeling in the darkness, the loneliness of what it's like to be blind.
"I had to open my eyes, I just had to see," she said.
Her friend, Leslie Doolittle, who also volunteers at the center added, "When I look at some of these kids, I can't picture myself that way."
The object of both girls' concern is a boy strapped to a wheelchair who sits motionless the entire day.
"I cried when I first saw him," said Kristin. "He is 10 years old and he can't do one thing. What do you do? Do you keep pushing him around in a wheelchair?"
"You just let him live his life in a wheelchair and keep trying," answered Leslie. "Maybe one day it will pay off."