2009-08-26 / Columnists
Pets, Pets, Pets
Balto, the hero Husky who in January 1925 led the last life-saving leg of the six hundred mile diphtheria serum run from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska is immortalized in bronze in Central Park. Just like the Alice in Wonderland statue, Balto’s fur shines like gold because of the countless children who have pet off his patina. Yet his biggest fan worships him from afar. Balto’s legacy lives on within the heart of a special young man in Florida.
Although Matt Browning, age 33, was born with multiple physical and intellectual impairments, he has a beautiful outlook on life. He’s an identical twin and proud of his brother who works at Universal Studios, especially since Matt is a movie buff.The animated Balto is his favorite filmfor two reasons. As Matt says, “#1 the story is true and #2 Balto saves children”. He’s a participant at Pathways, a day program for independence in Palm Beach where my friend Jeanne Penney is a director. She too has a refreshing perspective about disability, partly because her late father had polio. At softballgames, he’d step out of his wheelchair to hit homers and then barrel by the bases in his braces. She grew up thinking that only the “good people” wound up in wheelchairs. Her childhood was unique. Each night she and her identical twin sister were whisked off to bed either by a rocket ship or magic carpet.
Meanwhile Matt’s an innocent, kind fellow who is always thinking of others. Most of Pathways’ 15 clients are paralyzed, some quadriplegic; but Matt can negotiate a walker, so each day he gathers his buddies’ drinks from their lunch boxes and puts them in the refrigerator. It’s the least he can do for them. In addition, Matt is the movie critic for Pathways’ newsletter “Wild Wheels”. Last year he brought in his Balto tape to share with the gang, but the VCR ate it up. He was beside himself; everyone needed to know about Balto, so Jeanne ordered a DVD replacement tout de suite from EBay.
Jeanne is a native Long Islander. We taught together three decades ago. Her twin sister still lives in East Moriches. Last summer Jeanne, also an RN, was in New York quite often because her cousin from Delaware was undergoing chemo treatment at Sloan. To Matt, “New York” means “NYC” and “NYC” means the Balto statue. Each trip he would ask Jeanne to go to Central Park to get him a Balto photo but her cousin’s ordeal was too intense. Jeanne was never able to steal away; Matt understood.
Since 2000 Pathways (www.pathtoind.org) has helped Palm Beach area adults with severe physical developmental disabilities live as independent a life as possible. The clients, presently ranging from 22 to 57 years old, have varying difficulties with communication and mobility. Many have electronic devices that interpret eye or head movement messages, besides using powered wheelchairs. Activities are designed to enhance each participant’s abilities and dignity.
Some learn to read or use computers at Pathways, because previously no one tried to teach them. In their “Do You Have the Guts?” support club, members discuss barriers in their lives and ways to obtain individual goals which can range from moving into their own apartment to convincing their parents they are not babies anymore. Pathways clients manage creative micro-industries such as a balloon bouquet business, an online thrift shop, and my favorite- a Flamingo Flocking service. Far from a somber place; practical jokes rule at Pathways. This tiny community combats monumental challenges with a collective sense of humor. However, like many non-profits,budgets are stretched. Not immune from the Madoff mess, Pathways had to sell their only specially equipped van to help them stay open.
Now back to Balto…..but first, since I’m obsessed with the truth behind famous, long dead dogs (including Westminster’s Sensation buried in Babylon), time to debunk the Hollywood version. (Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know the harsh reality.) Balto and the sled team did inspire the annual Iditarod race, though there were hard feelings about which lead dog should receive the credit. Thepublic loved Balto’s story. In December 1925, Balto attended the unveiling of his Central Park likeness. When his star faded, he and his K-9 cohorts were sold to a vaudeville promoter. In 1927, a Cleveland businessman found the team neglected and in poor health, prompting Ohio school kids to raise $2000 to buy the dogs and return them as heroes to Cleveland. At his death in 1933, Balto was stuffed,and is now on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
Last month Jeanne returned to Long Island, stopping first in Delaware to see her cousin, happily in remission. We spent a day in NYC. Our first stop was Central Park to climb the rock and pose with Balto. The weekend before had been Matt’s 33rd birthday. She sent the photos by phone to Pathways. Within moments, Matt (with some help) texted back: “Thanks, for the best BD gift ever.” Matt, I’m spreading the word too. Now every Record reader knows about your beloved Balto.
For Adoption at Babylon Town Shelter (643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: This week’s poster pups bear a slight resemblance to Balto. The “Old Soul” in Cage 1 is a senior Shepherd mix found wandering Deer Park. Does anyone recognize him? “Sheba” in Cage 41 is an ultra- sweet Shepherd/Retriever mix, tied outdoors and then discarded by people who were moving. Males: last week’s featured “Alex” black Pit Cage 12. His loving owner died; “Gotti”- Puggle; Cattle Dog/Beagle Cage 5; “Winston”-wonderful black cat. Females: “Tyra”-Rottie mix Cage 42; “Hallie”-patient Pit Cage 38; “Lucy”-lovely white cat; Siamese mix kitten. Don’t Miss Out: Last Hope’s musical “Bella Notte” dinner at Sergio’s in Massapequa-Thurs. Sept. 3 from 6 to 9 pm. See www.lasthopeanimalrescue.org for ticket info.