Originally published in The Statesman (December 10, 2010)
Each Thursday night the screams and laughter coming from the pool in the Sports Complex at Stony Brook University are signs of Peter Angelo’s success.
The shouts and laughter come from hundreds of disabled children and adults enrolled in the university’s 46-year-old Adapted Aquatics program, which was designed to teach students how to use the water for therapy while also helping people with severe and minor disabilities improve their lives.
“Nobody had ever tried it before, but it made perfect sense to me,” said Angelo who had been training for the Olympics in distance swimming when asked to start the program. He knew what the water could do, and how to develop something that would help disabled people.
The program was developed in 1966 and ran by Angelo even before he graduated from the university. The chairperson of the physical education department at the time, which Angelo was a teaching assistant in, created the program. He was doing it as an extra curricular for no pay, and when he eventually graduated with his PhD in 1978 he was handed the program and has been its driving force for almost half a century.
The program exists today as a class where students can get credit or volunteer to help out once a week on Thursday nights during the class. The other part of the program is where disabled people can come for free for therapy and learn to swim. Some, according to Angelo, have been dropped form their health care and this is the only therapy they get .
Stony Brook was not the only school to have a program like this. At the time Angelo was starting his program there were two others in California and Wisconsin. But only one was a success.
Stony Brook towered above the rest because there was one factor Angelo insisted on. They needed to use real disabled people in the program and not people pretending to be disabled.
“They were so conscience of legalities they didn’t want to use the real thing,” Angelo said. “Simulating, oh here’s me I have a missing arm, that’s very different from encountering an amputee.”
A problem the program is cursed with has been funding. Angelo said he owes the fact that the program is now within the School of Health Technology and Management to former President Shirley Strum Kenny. With her help the program now receives $25,000 a year.
However Angelo says he has found it difficult to get that number up. He has to pay four part time salaries, all the equipment and paperwork they need out of that budget.
“It’s almost criminal, but we went into this with no funding.,” Angelo said blaming the current economic situation as to why the funds have not been coming in. To get by he has turned to fundraising through selling sweatshirts and other things.
Angelo’s determination comes from the grandmother he never knew and his deep religious beliefs.
In the early 1920’s, when Angelo’s mother was four, her mother had a stroke. She was trapped in a wooden chair with the middle cut out and a plywood cover so she could go to the bathroom. She sat there for 17 years.
“She sat beside a window looking out a five-story walk up in the Bronx, and that was 17 years of her recreation.” Angelo said. “Only wealthy people had wheel chairs in those days.”
Angelo feels that it was his duty to give back and countless patients and their parents agree.
Mary Myer has seen a positive change in her son Nicholas who has been coming to the program for five years. When he was two Nicholas stopped breathing. Myer still doesn’t know exactly what caused it.
“He looks forward to coming here, this is like the highlight of his week,” She said. “It’s defiantly given him something to look forward to.”
But the program has a multifaceted purpose. It exists to help disabled patients but also exists to help students learn physical therapy and how to work with disabled patients.
“It’s a completely eye opening experience,” said Kristen Connolly who has been with the program for two semesters and works with Nicholas. “When you come to this class you see individuals with different disabilities and different ages and it really makes you aware of the disabled population and how they can interact with other people and yet they’re so amazingly happy even though they may be going through some turmoil with their injuries.”
Angelo has created not just a program but a place for his students to come. Walking into his small office in the sports complex it is easy to see why he calls it a home away from home. There are Christmas decorations from wall to wall and even a medium sized Christmas tree with hand made ornaments of photos from the program from 15 years ago.
Angleo said what satisfies him the most is to give back. To use what he was given to help others improve their lives.
“I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do something for people who had these disabilities mainly because I have the talent to do it,” Angelo said. “To not do it would be the sin of omission.”