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A Comforting Beat That Thrills

September 24, 2000|ROBERT GAUTHIER | LOS ANGELES TIMES

A pounding beat bounces through the darkness as a disco light rotates slowly, firing light beams that pulse off the sweaty faces of dancers at this Santa Monica hot spot. The thick air rises in the small room, buoyed by a palpable joy oozing from the members of an exclusive club.

This is a city-sponsored therapeutic dance program at Santa Monica's Senior Recreation Center, on the bluffs overlooking the beach. It's a place where, on the last Friday of the month, developmentally disabled young adults and teenagers pass through the "velvet ropes" into an evening devoid of the strains of life on the outside. Created by the city of Santa Monica nearly 20 years ago, the program, which includes other social, athletic and recreational activities, has helped unlock some of the social shackles that come with disabilities such as mental retardation, Down syndrome and autism.

"The spirit of the program is independence," says John Metza, 27, program coordinator for the last two years. He says it helps instill confidence so its participants can develop the social and intellectual skills that will allow them greater mastery over their lives. And, of course, it's fun.

"I think it's a wonderful program," says Grace Muir, whose son, Ryan, 25, has Down syndrome. "If it wasn't for the club, he wouldn't get to do much." Now, she says, "he's so active, we have to keep a calendar for him."

Ryan, who joined the program 12 years ago, is a maintenance worker at Culver Studios. "It's fun, and I make friends," he says. "I like John. He takes time to be with me."

Mariana Heske, mother of 26-year-old Chris, says it's wonderful to see "these youngsters building themselves healthy relationships." It was through the program that Chris, who works at Banana Republic on the Third Street Promenade, met his girlfriend, Erica Roth. Each month, says his mother, he dons his best suit, sometimes pinning a red carnation to his lapel.

"I like to be with my girlfriend, and I like to dance," says Chris. "I like to hold her in my arms. . . . I feel like a man."

For Metza, who also works part time as an emergency room technician at UCLA Medical Center, working with the club members has changed him, too. "My perspective on life has become much more real since I started working with them. They changed me in so many ways."

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