Seniors Develop a Bond With Disabled Youths

"The seniors are coming! The seniors are coming!" yelled Robert Perez, announcing the arrival of his senior citizen friends, as he ran down the pathway to the play area of Calamigos Ranch in Malibu.

Perez is himself a senior--a senior high school student at Leichman, a school for the developmentally disabled. He and 14 other Leichman seniors treated 16 senior citizens, whom they befriended five years ago, to a picnic Friday.

The youths and the senior citizens became friends when they met at the food court of the Fallbrook Mall in West Hills. The Leichman students were on a field trip as part of a program designed to foster understanding of the community's disabled, as well as to help the disabled improve their social skills.

"We want to gain acceptance for whoever we are," said Pearl Bush, a teacher at Leichman, adding that she has found that senior citizens are "very accepting of our population."

The senior citizens don't belong to an organization, but they congregate almost daily at the mall, where they walk for exercise, visit with other seniors or exchange tips on horse racing.

Hank Hanson, 79, who calls himself the unofficial mayor of Fallbrook, recalled the day he met the youngsters: "One day, the gal that runs the pretzel and cheese said, 'How would you like to play ball with some handicapped kids?' and we said, 'Sure.' " Ever since, the senior citizens have sponsored a variety of projects and events for the children, including weekly bowling nights, softball games and parties.

Lou Minerva said he enjoys being around the disabled youths because, "You give them just a little bit of attention, a little love, and they think you're giving them the world."

Keya Darby, who will be graduating from Leichman and moving on to New Horizons where he will learn work skills, said he especially likes playing softball, basketball and bowling with his older friends. "We just have fun with them," he said.

Student Ryan Johnston said he appreciates the events the senior citizens have put on for his class. "I want to thank them for all the things they've done for us."

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