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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 9, 2005

Running - and winning - at their own pace

By Andrew Schotz

ALBANY — Trackside at the University at Albany, Eleanor Alland waited and waited on Saturday, in wilting heat, for her son to compete.

Real time was well behind scheduled time at the Special Olympics’ Capital District Summer Games, but Mrs. Alland didn’t move from her spot beside the fence.

Finally, it was Alland’s turn. He lined up on the track with three other men.

Alland, who will turn 54 on Saturday, had the outside lane.

The starter’s pistol sounded and the four men broke ahead, each at his own pace. The race was a 400-meter walk.

Within 20 seconds, Alland was a few lengths behind. "C’mon, Jim, get going," his mother called encouragingly. "Move faster. A little faster."

Mrs. Alland knew her son’s chances were best if he could veer to the inside lane first — which he did not do. But he finished ahead of two others, earning a second-place medal. Once around the track took the field around four minutes.

"I did very well," Alland said afterwards, noting that he walks for exercise every Thursday.

Now living at a Cohoes group home run by The Center for the Disabled, Alland shelves books full-time at the New York State Library in Albany. He has held his job for 28 years.

Mrs. Alland, a longtime Altamont resident who moved to the Avalon retirement community in August, said her son likes sports, but wasn’t an athlete growing up.

It wasn’t until his adult years that he took part in Special Olympics.

"I think he’s very proud to be in the events," she said. "He talks about it quite a while."

Alland’s interest, she said, lies more in the social fun. "He likes people and he likes to be doing things with people."

James Alland moved out of his parents’ home around 1985, one of the first people to try an apartment-living program for people with mental disabilities, his mother said.

With Saturday’s schedule running behind, Alland had little time after his 400-meter walk to cool down.

Off he went to a patch of grass outside the track for the shot put competition.

Alland’s best toss among three tries was 4.0 meters. His only opponent managed 3.1 meters on his best throw. Alland had earned a second medal.

Not about defeat

In the meantime, Sari Virkler was whiling away the time between her events.

Virkler already had a gold medal for winning a 50-meter dash. She wore it around her neck and referred to it, and pointed to it, a few times during an interview. By the end of the day, she had three of them.

After the events ahead of hers were finally over, Virkler ran the 100-meter dash and finished first. Then, she was part of a 400-meter relay team that finished first, too.

It was about six years ago that her father, Ed Virkler, encouraged her to get moving.

"I was just trying to motivate her to get some serious exercise," he said.

It worked. Virkler, 27, has become a runner and a competitor.

Eric Wohlleber, the director of public affairs for Special Olympics New York, overheard Virkler say she has fewer than 100 medals, but possibly " hmm, maybe more than 50"

"Why don’t you count how many medals"" he suggested.

Virkler balked. "I don’t want homework," she said.

But she counted again in her head, then downgraded her medal estimate to about 20. She said she has hung up a bunch of them at The Center for the Disabled's group home in Altamont, which used to be known as Helderberg House. She has lived there for about two years.

Eleanor Alland knows the home well. She and her late husband, Peter, were among those who helped start the group home in 1974.

Ed Virkler said it’s been a better, more welcoming neighborhood for her than his daughter’s last group home. The Virklers live on Leesome Lane. It helps to be in your hometown, waving to friends and neighbors as you walk from place to place, he said.

Virkler works at Chuck E. Cheese in Latham twice a week, helping however she can. She said she pitches in for Meals on Wheels and at The Daughters of Sarah Senior Community, too.

She explained, in short bits, what she likes about Special Olympics: her coaches, meeting people, running.

Her father’s theory: "It’s the feeling of importance that I can do something everyone else can do."

Virkler’s mother, Sherrill, told a story that seems to tie together Special Olympics’ relaxed and competitive halves.

In the middle of a race, one of her daughter’s friends, who was running against her, fell to the track. Virkler stopped, saw that her friend was okay — then kept going.

"They all try hard to win," Ed Virkler said, "but not to the extent that they try to defeat other kids."

"This is a real competition," John D’Alessandro of Halfmoon, the vice president of public affairs for Special Olympics New York, said Saturday. "A lot are there just to get better. But some are there to rise up and excel."

He mentioned a 140-pound athlete from the Syracuse area who once deadlifted about 500 pounds in a powerlifting competition.

About 700 athletes competed in the Capital District Summer Games at the University at Albany, coming from as far as Poughkeepsie, Plattsburgh and Rochester.

Many will move on to Special Olympics’ statewide games June 16 to 19 on Long Island.

Wohlleber said about 3,000 athletes are expected.

One of them will be Virkler, with her three gold medals.

Land Conservancy: Change of name and mission

— Matt Cook

Leaders of an organization that has played a key role in preserving the natural landmarks of Albany County plan to do the same in other parts of the area.

The Albany County Land Conservancy officially changed its name last week to the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy. The new name reflects the organization’s expansion into Schenectady and Montgomery counties, with a focus on the Mohawk River Valley.

Dan Driscoll, of Knox, president of the conservancy’s board of directors, told The Enterprise that the conservancy, which obtains land and property rights to protect wild areas, already owned one preserve in Montgomery County, the Scoharie Creek Preserve, which, at 198 acres, is one of the largest properties the conservancy controls.

Also, a report from the Open Space Institute in February identified the Wolf Hollow area in Schenectady County as one of the high-priority open space areas in the Capital Region. The hollow is a scenic ravine in western Glenville.

"We started getting a lot of interest in that area," Driscoll said, "It’s an area that wasn’t served very well by other land trusts."

With interests outside of the county, Driscoll said, it quickly became apparent to the conservancy that the old name wouldn’t do. Besides, he said, since the group was founded in 1992, its members have talked about changing the name so it wasn’t confused with a government agency.

The land conservancy is a not-for-profit organization. Most of its preserves are of land donated to the conservancy by private citizens, other nature organizations, companies, and the county. The conservancy also holds developement rights for Indian Ladder Farms, a popular orchard and nature spot in New Scotland.

In Albany County, much of the conservancy’s efforts have gone towards preserving the Helderberg escarpment, the county’s most prominent natural feature, Driscoll said.

Driscoll, who co-edited the Helderberg Escarpment Planning Guide, said the escarpment is worth protecting for a number of reasons. Among other things, he said, it’s one of the largest sources of fossils from the Devonian Era in the country, and Thacher Park, in New Scotland and Knox, is the most popular park in the county.

"It’s a backdrop for the city of Albany," Driscoll said.

Besides the Helderbergs, the conservancy has also been very active in Bethlehem, and it hopes to create a triangular corridor of wild lands linking its preserves there with the town park on Elm Avenue and the state’s Five Rivers Environmental Education Center.

With its newly expanded focus, the conservancy will treat the Mohawk River Valley like it does the Helderberg escarpment.

The Mohawk River is one of the major sources of water for the Hudson, Driscoll said.

"It’s also a very scenic area," Driscoll said, citing as an example the Noses in Montgomery County, a site where two steep hills dip into the river. "There are scenic spots all along the Mohawk that are like that," Driscoll said.

The Mohawk Valley is also archeologically and historically significant. Former American Indian settlements dot the river’s shoreline, Driscoll said.

Many historical figures have gone up and down the river, like Charles Proteus Steinmetz, an electrical engineer and inventor who studied the effect of a lightning strike on a mirror in a Mohawk Valley cabin. The conservancy now owns a cabin Steinmetz used to own, Driscoll said, though he’s not sure it’s the same one where the lightning struck.

"That’s another mission for us, to preserve historical things," he said.

With the change of name comes organizational changes for the conservancy. At this point, Driscoll said, the all-volunteer staff is just big enough to run the 14 properties the conservancy controls, most of which are open to the public. With the help of a grant from the Land Trust Alliance, the conservancy will be hiring an executive director and a part-time assistant.

The staff will work at an old schoolhouse in Feura Bush that the New York State Department of Transportation donated to the conservancy.

On the volunteer side, the conservancy is looking to increase its membership by 100 in the next five years. Right now, it has 260 members. To do that, it has begun a series of in-home meetings called "Gatherings" to introduce the group to non-members. There were five Gatherings in 2004, which helped increase membership 22 percent in that year.

Driscoll cited a book called The Rise of the Creative Class, by Richard Florida. The book tracks the emergence of people who work in creative fields, like scientists, engineers, entertainers, and teachers.

"As it turns out, Albany ranks very high as a place for creative people," Driscoll said. "The land conservancy will help the Mohawk-Hudson area become even more attractive to creative people. There’s still quite a bit of open space."

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