Felix Lopez spun hot dance records at poolside as if he’d been doing it all his life. Well, not quite all his life, a mere 20 years, he said. On this hot afternoon in early August, his music inspired some of the early arrivals to this after-closing pool party for members of Ability Day Camp. It had some up on their feet even before firefighters served the food.
Lopez, like dozens of other Bayonne firefighters working at the picnic, had volunteered to help celebrate one of the more noble Bayonne traditions that started 40 years ago, with then Deputy Fire Chief Albert Hurley.
“My mother was a registered nurse in Willowbrook School,” Albert’s son, Councilman Joseph Hurley, said.
Willowbrook State School, open from 1962 to 1987 on Staten Island, was dedicated to people with disabilities.
Joe recalled, “My father used to pick her up there and saw the children and asked, `what does anybody do for the kids in Bayonne?’ That little link of our mom working for these kids made our dad look it up and realize we had a program in Bayonne that takes these kids every day. So he thought we should do something for them. Let’s have a day out with them. The firemen should give back. This is the perfect group to give back to. They go everyday and they don’t have what we have.”
The firefighters cook for them, play games with them, even spin records, as Lopez demonstrates.
“We give them toys, transistor radios, and other small gifts,” Joe said. “We even wrap them at our house.”
Some participants have been in the program for 40 years.
“They had a camp than ran in the summer, and they took trips every week to different places. And for one of those so-called trips, the firemen decided to give them a barbeque every year,” said Sharon Calasurdo, one of the three Hurley siblings who has maintained the tradition annually since their father’s death in 2001.
“Our father got together with Al Slootsky, who was the director of the Ability Day Camp at the time,” Sharon said.
Donna Zerovoulis, Albert Hurley’s other daughter, said she and her siblings started coming out to assist their father, and eventually took over.
“He never took credit,” Donna said. “He worked behind the scenes. But he was always there when you needed him. He was very well respected by the firemen.”
Zerovoulis works at Bayonne High School and is near tears when talking about the program because it was so much a part of her father’s life.
“For 40 years, we’ve been at every one,” she said. “My brother, my sister, and I, and now our children. All our kids went away to college, but they never missed one of these days,” she said.
Joe said the fire department not only supports the day financially, but also with everything from cooking the food to playing the music.
“We make sure it happens every year,” Joe said
Established 40 years ago
To establish the annual picnic, Al Hurley got together with Slootsky, founder of the Ability Day Camp, an amazing man who had overcome his own disabilities and eventually was inducted into the Special Olympics Hall of Fame.
Slootsky owned a number of local businesses, including a bowling alley and was deeply involved in polices, said his successor, Ed Broderick, supervisor of the camp.
“He was also a Special Olympics wheelchair player,” Broderick said.
Dennis Palak who has been in the program for 40 years said Albert Hurley was a very good man.
The program is run by the town’s Department of Parks and Recreation for people with disabilities.
Broderick, who started with the program in 1968, said the Ability Day Camp has a winter program that runs five days a week: bowling on Monday, arts and crafts on Tuesday, gym and games on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and swimming at the Lincoln School pool on Fridays.
“About once a month we go to the movies,” Broderick said. “We operate every day that school is in session. A lot of our kids come from Windmill Alliance, Hudson Milestones, and the special education programs in the Bayonne public schools. We do all the transportation; we have three buses. A lot of the schools have special ed courses so I try to reach out to them.”
The program has a lot of help from teachers, high-school kids, and college students. John Valdora is a coach for a Special Olympic team. Ronnie Burns, a teacher, has been there for awhile as well, working at the Busy Bee program. Bobby Tellman is a supervisor.
“Not every town has this,” Joe Hurley said.
“Some of these people have been in the program for decades,” said Sharon.
The camp doesn’t have one location. Buses pick up the participants at their houses, and take them to various sites.
Broderick said most of the people who became directors at the program started out as bus drivers.
The program runs as an after-school program during the school year and becomes a summer day-camp program for six weeks.
“But it’s not just for students,” Sharon said.
While some in the fire department call the participants “our kids,” the age range is from 14 to 72.
“This keeps our special-needs population busy and gives them a sense of worth and value,” Joe said. “They make friendships that last a lifetime.”
Not all who attend the winter program were at the pool or even attended summer camp.
“Some go away to other summer camps,” Broderick said, estimating that about 50 or 60 campers were at the pool.
Broderick said those still in town usually take part in the summer program.
The picnic is funded by firemen taking up a collection, with each fireman donating money.
“This doesn’t come out of the fire department budget,” Sharon said. “This is all volunteer. The money comes out of their pockets. What started out as `let’s do something for Al Slootsky’s kids’ turned into 40 years. So after our father passed away it went on to us children. I became a special-education teacher.”
Other family members became enmeshed in various programs.
“We’re all involved in a lot of ways,” Sharon said.
For the first 30 years, the event took place in Stephen Greg County Park at the foot of the stairs near the lake.
But Joe Hurley said it got too hot so ten years ago, the event was relocated to the municipal pool and held after the pool closed for the day.
“It starts when the pool closes at 5 p.m.,” Sharon said. “There is a lot of dancing, there is a water balloon toss with a lot of prizes, they go swimming, they eat, and we always leave them with a takeaway to take home. This year being the 40th year we got them something special.”
Joe said as a councilman and firefighter, he has gone to numerous events in which people are getting awards.
He decided that he would honor some of the people who have worked at this program.
“These are people who have given their time and their effort for many years,” he said.
In recognition, he has decided to give a plaque to those who have served 30 years or more in the program.
“A few of them said it was the only recognition they ever got,” he said.
Broderick said, “Mike Witney from the fire department went into his own pocket to buy jackets for all of our kids.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.