For 15 mentally handicapped children in Cambridge, Harvard and Eliot House are almost like summer camp. Every Saturday those 15 come to the University to cook, swim or even try out for the Special Olympics.
Officers from the Cambridge Recreational Department supervise this special needs program, which is staffed by eight to ten volunteers, mostly from Eliot House. Wayne W. Meisel '82 and Keith J. O'Hana '82 organized the project, now in its fifth week.
"This has changed the program totally," Karen E. Rainieri, director of the Recreational Department's special needs program said Saturday. The Harvard facilities and students have made the program much more fun, she added.
Between bites of peanut butter sandwiches last Saturday, the children agreed. But they couldn't decide which aspect of the program they liked the best.
Most of them prefer swimming, but one vociferous 10-year-old objected-"Swimming is okay, but I think the best thing about Harvard is pinball."
For the past four years the Recreational Department used city-owned facilities at the War Memorial building and the Rindge Shelter teen center, Rainieri said.
"Harvard has facilities the city just can't offer," such as the dance studios and athletic equipment, she said.
The student volunteers supplementing the four-member city staff are the most important aspect of the Harvard program she said, adding "It gives the children a chance to meet more people."
For Meisel and O'Hana, the program is just as successful. "At first I was scared. I didn't know how to deal with the kids or if they would like us or Harvard," O'Hana said.
"Now it's fine. They're just kids," he said, adding that he hopes the program will continue permanently.
The two decided to organize the program at the suggestion of Gil Leaf '63, a resident tutor in Eliot House.
Leaf said yesterday that speaking with the parents of a child in the program about its facilities inspired him to get Eliot House involved. After he suggested that idea to Meisel and O'Hana, "the guys took it from there," he added.
In late February the two proposed the Saturday program to officials in the Recreation Department, and they added they had to do a lot of persuading.
"Harvard doesn't have a very good standing in the community," Meisel said, adding that some officials wondered if they were trying to do a study of the department. "At first they couldn't believe we just wanted to help," he added.
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