Dixie Henrikson ran a hand through her silver hair, sighed pessimistically and said, "It's going to be a flop, I just know it is." She munched a hot dog and surveyed the scene at Harvard School in Studio City, where a benefit for retarded children had just begun with events in swimming, running and walking.
About a dozen children--some retarded, some not--rounded the track, heads thrust forward and arms pumping, a look of proud determination on their faces as they tried to raise money for a summer camp. But only a few spectators showed up to offer moral support or to sponsor a lap with a donation.
"I despise fund-raisers. I'm no good at them," Henrikson said. She is executive director and one of the founders of Activities for Retarded Children, a 17-year-old local program that assists the social adjustment of retarded children through bowling, dances, field trips and other activities.
Taking the Cake
"And I really hate the ones where you make a cake, take it to the bake sale; then you buy someone else's cake and take it home and eat the damn thing," Henrikson said. "You end up with just a lot of women in the same organization eating each other's cakes. That's not what fund-raising should be, so we're trying to get the public involved."
Henrikson established the organization with nothing more than the determination to provide supervised play for retarded children such as her daughter, Deborah, who was then 3 years old. "You can't just take a young retarded kid to the park and drop her off, and I wasn't about to make her sit at home all the time. None of my other kids had to go second-class, so why should Deborah have to?" she said.
She asked for help at Studio City Park, and officials there agreed to cooperate. But eventually Henrikson realized that supervision at the park wasn't adequate for the five children who became involved.
She also felt as though she and the youngsters weren't really welcome. "We even had to get out of the park to make way for the Camaro Club--a bunch of people who drive Camaros. We just weren't a top priority there," she said.
So she and the other mothers were on their own again, relying on each other for help and scraping together whatever money they could to finance outings for their children.
Incorporated in 1975
In 1975, they finally incorporated to form ARC. From that point on, she said, she and an assistant director, Mary Schallert, whose daughter Susan has Down's syndrome, worked 12 to 15 hours a day with no pay to expand the program. Eventually, they received some funding from United Way and the Community Development Department, and have recently started earning a modest salary.
"I'll bet I'm the lowest-paid executive director in town," Henrikson said.
Today ARC has 130 clients and includes so many activities that Bobbi Mills, whose daughter entered the program two years ago, said, "If Judy did everything they have to offer, we'd be exhausted from following her around. This way, she gets to pick and choose the activities she enjoys."
"A lot of people think Easter and Christmas parties are enough for these kids and that two functions a year is plenty," Henrikson said. "But these kids have the same needs as any teen-agers, and other teen-agers don't say, 'Oh, I've been out this month, so I think I'll stay home now.' "
Mills cheered as Judy race-walked past the bleachers in bright red sweat pants, then said, "We overprotected her, but now she's like any teen-ager. She goes camping, dancing, and she can compete with her peers and win. For the first time, she can be tops at something."
"And she has boyfriends now," said Judy's father, Charles Mills.
Henrikson said, "We're always trying to teach the kids. We have programs on sexual awareness that deal with the basics like 'I'm a girl, and you're a boy, and this is how it goes.' Socialization is our bag, and, if a kid's gonna learn how to ask a girl to dance, he has to learn at the dance."
Back at the refreshment counter, Saddie Butchkl gave new meaning to Henrikson's definition of "fund-raiser." For a couple of dollars, she bought her own cake. "It's the only way I'll be sure to get my pan back," she said.
Her son Gregory, 20, a fan of Chicago Bears lineman William (Refrigerator) Perry, who aspires to become Refrigerator II, was worn out from swimming 41 laps in the pool, and maybe just a little tired, he said, from a party the night before.
"A lot of the kids in ARC have been friends almost all their lives," Butchkl said, adding that Deborah Henrikson and Gregory "started in preschool together, and they celebrate their birthdays together every February."
"These kids have their own special community," said Henrikson. "They support each other, tease each other and feel all the emotions that you and I feel. They just do it all on their own level."