Volunteers make a day on the water possible for the disabled

John Joyce
  • Easter Seals and volunteers bring joy each year to the disabled, lending a little independence to those who need the most help.
  • Jet Skiing, water skiing and tubing might not otherwise be possible for someone who is normally bound to a wheelchair.

Over the hum of half a dozen Jet Skis and boats on the water at Lake Aldred, April Gross' shrieks of joy and excitement find her mother's ears on the shore of Duncan Island on the Susquehanna River Sunday.

Back on land, Kathy Gross, of Hanover, knows her daughter can't see her.

She waves anyway.

Two decades strong: More than 75 children and adults with disabilities physical, mental, or both, including spina bifida, paraplegia, Down syndrome and autism, were ferried out to the sandy beach of Duncan Island, near Airville, Saturday and Sunday for the 21st annual P.K. Filling Adaptive Water Sports Clinic.

Nicole Talarico, 30, of Robeson Township in Berks County, water skis during the 21st annual P.K. Filling Adaptive Water Sports Clinic near Airville, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The event is overseen by the Easter Seals of Western and Central Pennsylvania and relies largely on volunteers and sponsors to give those who otherwise have limitations in life a chance to feel free and unencumbered on the water.

The Grosses, like many other participating families, have been attending the clinic for years. For some, having a disability means being treated by life, and sometimes by people, a little differently. In fact, April, 29, is lucky to be alive.

"She loves it," Kathy Gross said, watching her daughter streak across the water, tethered behind a boat to a modified water ski outfitted with a special seat for people with disabilities.

"A year ago, two years ago now, she was on life support," Kathy Gross said.

April suffers from numerous afflictions, the source of which remains undiagnosed. At 18 months old, she underwent open-heart surgery, and many times over April's almost 30 years, the Grosses were told she might not survive.

The board is secured as volunteer Morgan Filling, left, and mother Kathy Gross, right, assist April Gross, 29, of Hanover, into a secured aluminum frame chair before waterskiing during the P.K. Filling Adaptive Water Sports Clinic in Airville, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

April has seizures, she cannot articulate her words, and she has several physical disabilities. But every morning when she wakes up, she knows to go to the cabinet to get stickers put on her shirt — she can't make it through the day without her stickers, her mother said — just like every summer she knows she is going to the river to water ski.

P.K. Fillings: The clinic was started more than two decades ago by Pat "P.K." Fillings, just two years before she was diagnosed with and ultimately lost her life to cancer. Fillings' family, along with Easter Seals and countless volunteers, have kept the program running. Fillings' daughter, Morgan, made the trip up from Baltimore, where she is an accountant.

"This is the 21st year. My mother started this event just as a way for these kids and adults to get out here and away from their normal problems, just to experience something they wouldn’t normally experience," Fillings said.

She pauses to watch Colin Fernsler, a longtime participant, ski by. Fernsler, who began coming to the event several years ago, started out as a sit-down skier, she said. On Sunday, Fernsler skirted by the island standing upright on two skis.

"We’ve kept it alive for 21 years. There are a lot of volunteers who have been with us for (many) years, and skiers who have been here year after year, especially in the last few years," Fillings said.

Gamlers Boat Yard Campgrounds Owner R.L. McConnell, left, helps Kareem Schlegel, 25, of Lansdale, to a pontoon that will transport him to Duncan Island on the Susquehanna River for the 21st annual P.K. Filling Adaptive Water Sports Clinic near Airville, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The program has grown since it first started when she was a small child. In addition to growing in size, Fillings said, things are more efficient these days. She and the other volunteers have been at it so long that they can read each other's body language rather than having to shout instructions at one another, which saves time and enhances safety on the water.

She said she comes back every year for the joy she gets in seeing those with disabilities enjoy a bit of newfound freedom. And it keeps her close to her mother's legacy, she said.

"When you’re 8, there is not much you can do. To be 28 and have this event still going in her memory is absolutely incredible," Fillings said.

Sponsors and volunteers: The program would not be possible without its many sponsors and volunteers. Along with Easter Seals and the Gamler Boat Yard and Campground, where the event is held at no cost, contributors include The Hershey Co., the Pequea Water Ski Club and Quandel Enterprises.

Easter Seals director of therapeutic recreation Matt Ernst has been working with kids and adults with disabilities for more than 18 years. His nonprofit covers two-thirds of the state and offers a variety of programs to folks with disabilities and their kids, he said.

Those programs include child development, recreation, adaptive sports, camps and other therapies. Water skiing and aquatic sports are just some of many in the Easter Seals' arsenal, he said. And they're for all ages.

"We have individuals that are as young as a year-and-a-half in some of our programs, all the way up to, just yesterday we had a (water) skier who is 74. It was pretty cool."

Nicole Talarico, 30, of Robeson Township in Berks County, water skis during the 21st annual P.K. Filling Adaptive Water Sports Clinic near Airville, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The weekend saw a mix of children and adults with a mix of disabilities and a variety of needs, Ernst said.

"And it’s just about getting them on the water, feeling the independence while they’re on the water and learning a new recreation sport. We have individuals out here, younger kids who still live at home with their parents, we have adults, some of whom have jobs and are very active parts of society, but they come out here to get an experience they can’t have anywhere else," he explained.

About a dozen or more teenagers were in the water, wearing life vests and helping the participants get strapped in and stay upright when heading out to ski and when coming back to shore. Ernst said preparing the next generation, who will be tasked with keeping the program alive and well, also gives those without disabilities a chance to see firsthand that people who are disabled might have extra needs, but they are people, too.

"It makes you a little bit more aware, a little bit more compassionate, a little bit more understanding that there are other individuals living out there with needs," Ernst said. "There are individuals living with specific needs, but they are really no different than you or I."

— Reach John Joyce at jjoyce2@yorkdispatch.comor on Twitter at @JohnJoyceYD.