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A Week on The Sunny Emerald Isle

IRELAND
A WEEK ON THE SUNNY EMERALD ISLE:
THE GUIDED TOUR CAPTURES IRELAND'S HEART
By Frank D. Quattrone
Editor, Ticket

As winter wanes, the ravages of El Niño have barely touched these shores. Standing on my balcony in shirtsleeves, I can smell traces of spring, traces of green, traces of The Emerald Isle.

It was somewhat less than a year ago that I joined The Guided Tour on its first-ever trip through Ireland. For seven sun-splashed days, with only a smattering of rain (you had to be there to believe it), I enjoyed one of the most heart-warming journeys of my life. From May 19-26 of this year, with plans unfolding swimmingly, The Guided Tour will return. Considering the magic of last year's trip, it seems destined for success.

From Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New England and the Midwest, they came to JFK. Like a reverse migration. Headed for the greener pastures of Ireland. They were the Travelers, a colorful band of people with developmental challenges, on their first voyage to the Emerald Isle. Some live independently or with parents; others live in group homes. Most hold part-time or full-time competitive jobs and have achieved some measure of independence. None, however, have physical or developmental challenges so severe that they need constant medical or psychological supervision. All were eager for the challenge of experiencing new places, new lands.

And it is the avowed mission of The Guided Tour, Inc., of Elkins Park, founded by Irv Segal in 1972, to provide opportunities for personal growth, recreation and socialization for men and women with special needs through travel. But the week in Ireland was something completely new for Irv Segal and his Travelers. Months of careful planning by Irv and his wife Zipporah, both professionally trained social workers and pioneers in the development of social and recreational programs for special populations, resulted in a whirlwind tour beginning in Dublin. Sixteen Travelers toured Ireland by coach, taking in the ancient Christian ruins at Glendalough, Blarney Castle, Killarney and the Ring of Kerry, the Cliffs of Moher and a medieval feast at Bunratty Castle, with ample time to shop, see the sights and relax between adventures before returning to the States from Shannon Airport.

Joining a full-time staff of five professional social workers, I would soon become more caregiver than journalist, for I truly came to care deeply about this very special band of people. For me it all began with Patrick Sweeney, a Traveler from Hatfield, Montgomery County, who lives with his parents, Jean and Bob. Full of assurance, he immediately latched onto me, making great eye contact, smiling with the full force of eternal sunshine. He followed me like a beloved puppy, asking where we were heading, when we would get there, what we would do, when we would eat and more, always pleasant, glowing in the knowledge that he had found a new friend.

Also in our company was Peggy O'Bryan of Norristown--like Patrick, with a name the Irish would instantly love. She lives with her mother and is mobile and articulate. Without Peggy's deft camera, much less of our trip would have been so successfully recorded. Then there was Jonathan Garr of Elkins Park--a proud gentleman, veteran of countless trips with The Guided Tour since 1975. He has been working for the government full-time for more than 25 years, has been honored and rewarded for his loyal, efficient service, is close to his mother but very independent, very articulate, destined to be my roomie on the trip. Like Patrick and Peggy, Jon fell in love with Irish music and adored shopping, especially the wonderful Irish sweaters available at Blarney Woolen Mills. About his travels, Jon says, "I just like picking out interesting places. And Irv and Zipporah and their family are such great people." These were some of Irv Segal's Travelers. And what a trip they had in store...

On a typically grey and chilly day that did not augur well, we set out on a coach tour of Dublin. For one full week, our driver and guide, Jer Walsh of County Kerry, rousted out the chill and had us marveling and laughing at his daily commentary on Ireland's history, geography, religion, agriculture and industry, sporting life and drinking life, anecdotes and myths, some of which I'm sure he made up on the spot.

They also needed a focal point, something to rally 'round. And since good-natured Patrick Sweeney and I hit it off so well, I decided to take a chance. As the Travelers walked among the tulips and primroses of Dublin's St. Stephen's Green, I looked at the threatening sky and said, "Patrick, can you do something about this weather? Can't you use your influence with the powers-that-be? After all, you are Patrick Sweeney, and as King Patrick, surely you can pull some strings. What do you say?" As expected, he was delighted. (So was everyone else. Something about a king in their midst really caught their fancy.) Patrick rubbed his hands together, pointed at the sky, laughed again, suddenly got serious and said, "Sun! Come out, sun We don't want any rain."

In the way that Ireland has of creating miracles from the mundane, the way that many myths are born, a break in the sky appeared. A ray of sun had penetrated the clouds. Patrick pumped his fist, rubbed his hands together, smiled proudly and accepted his peers' adulation. And this became a theme throughout the trip, as the sun warmed us every day of our stay. The Irish called it a "bloomin' drought," but you couldn't hear us complain. King Patrick had succeeded royally in keeping the rain at bay...

One of our disappointments actually turned out well. Irv had arranged for the Travelers to meet with American Ambassador to Ireland, Jean Kennedy Smith, whose commitment to the welfare of people with disabilities and developmental challenges is well documented. At the last minute, however, a snafu in her schedule forced her to cancel. Understandably, the Travelers were sorely deflated. But knowing they were American ambassadors of sorts, they put on their best faces and assumed a hearty attitude. At the Embassy, we were greeted by the very personable second in command, Deputy Chief of Mission Lawrence Edward Butler, who put everyone at ease. He said, "You are on U.S. soil here." He told us that 40,000 Americans live in Ireland. Mr. Butler reiterated, "The Ambassador is a champion of the cause," explaining that five Irish citizens who work at the Embassy, including one employee in a wheelchair, were either developmentally or physically challenged. The Travelers cheered sincerely, accepting his invitation to tour the flag-draped reception room.

One touching Irish connection that emerged during our visit concerned the usually unsentimental Hugh Sreenen, of Rocky River, Ohio. With moist eyes, Hugh told Mr. Butler that he had saved eight years for this trip, "to come back where I was born and lived until I was five years old. My father was born right outside Dublin."

During our long coach rides, Irv would often lead the group in The Guided Tour's unofficial theme-song, "What is Life Without Love?," a Calypso ditty he had learned in the Virgin Islands. Espousing "love in de mornin', love in de evenin', what is life without love?," it soon had most of the Travelers singing along.

Everywhere The Guided Tour made its rounds, someone took notice. An employee at our Dublin hotel said how wonderful it was that we're "taking care of such special people like this." With a tear in her eye, she said that her own daughter , who also started out as a social worker, "was stricken by an accident and became partially paralyzed. Now she's being cared for in a way she was caring for her own special people. God bless you all." Coach driver Jer said, "I find our Travelers here to be courteous and patient--a credit to their families, the people who brought them and their country."

Perhaps because King Patrick had induced the sun-god to smile on the Travelers' fortunes...perhaps because Jer Walsh was the perfect guide for Irv's trip...perhaps because the synergy was better than anyone could have expected--it was a magical time of good cheer, healing and personal growth.

Hats off to the Emerald Isle...and to The Guided Tour!
Reprinted with permission from Ticket, March 11/12, 1998, Montgomery Newspapers' weekly guide to entertainment and the arts. Editor Frank Quattrone is a former professor of literature and writing.


TOUR OPERATORS SERVING CLIENTS WITH DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIES
· The Guided Tour, 7900 Old York Road, Elkins Park, PA 19027-2339; (215) 782-1378 / 635-2637 Fax. E-mail: gtour400@aol.com Web site: www.guidedtour.com
· New Directions, 5276 Holister Ave., #207, Santa Barbara, CA 91111; (805) 967-2841 / Fax. 964-7344.
· Search Beyond Adventures, 400 S Cedar Lake Road, Minneapolis, MN 55405; (800) 800-9979; (612) 374-4845 / Fax. 377-5861.
· Sprout, 893 Amsterdam Ave., New York, NY 10025; (800) 222-9575; (212) 222-9575 / Fax. 222-9768. E-mail: sprout@interport.net
· Sundial Special Vacations, Inc., 600 Broadway, Suite 4, Seaside, OR 97138; (800) 547-9198; (503) 738-3324 / 738-3369 E-mail: jill@sundial.com.
· TASC Travel Adventures, 27 Water St., Suite 112, Wakefield, MA 01880; (617) 246-2446.


From OPEN WORLD, Vol. 2, Issue 2, Spring 1998.
Copyright 1998. All rights reserved.