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A PATH TO HEALING - Scouts blaze a trail and combat autism stigma

Like many Boy Scout projects. clearing woods to make a trail is one way to move up in rank and earn a badge.

But this wasn’t a typical Scout outing.

While they earned their Eagle Scout badges, the Scouts, one of whom is affected with autism, worked to­gether to “fight the stigma of mental illness.”

Two weekends last October was all 20 Boy Scouts needed to complete the first official trail at High Point Palm In Montague.

Combating the stigma and having a positive impact on a lot of people’s lives is what this is about, not complet­ing a trail,” said Charlie Saggese, a social worker for Foun­tain House, a nonprofit psychiatric rehabilitation facility, and program coordinator at the farm. Two weeks ago, the trail was dedicated to Daniel Fiddle, who had ASD (autistic spectrum disorder), a neurological disorder that affects communicative and social functioning.
Daniel died in 2000 at age 9. Before the Scouts took on the challenge of creating the two-mile trail, they often camped on the 477-acre farm and spent long weekends planting trees. Boy Scout Stephen Kovalcik, 17, took full charge of the project, and led the team in clearing the woods and mark­ing the site for wildlife observation. The Scouts marked the trails, posted signs, made benches and tagged species of trees. The project was a new challenge for many of the Scouts, and all of them worked well as a team, Stephen said, especially by the autistic Scout. He was just as much help as everyone else there, and he gave it his all,” Stephen said Stephen was not concerned about the troop taking on a project that required working with chain saws, grass cutters and other dangerous tools.

“The confidence I had in my troop never wavered, and they did it knowing it was for a very important cause,” he added. There are about six miles of paths at the farm, none of which have ever been sectioned off and dedicated as an official trail until now. The trail, which borders High Point State Park and the Delaware Water Gap National Recitation Area runs along wetlands where habitats of wild turkeys and rookeries of blue heron can he seen. It also leads to a grove of sugar maples for future harvesting of maple syrup. ­“They did a great thing for us, but the greater thing is that they took the opportunity to face a challenge that they succeeded in,” Saggese said. Some struggle with mental challenges, and that is something that many fear because people are afraid of what they don’t know. But when they participate in activities like this, we all see a side that helps us, as people, un­derstand each other better,” he added.

The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation provided a $7,500 grant to Fountain House that enabled the Scouts to work on the Wildlife Habitat Project at the farm. The project really showed that adolescents affected with ASD can be a part of a meaningful opportunity be­cause it was a personal goal for each of them”, said Dan­iel’s mother, Linda Fiddle, executive director of the Fiddle Foundation. “They went beyond their own capabilities. They were exposed to situations in the wilderness and interacted with people in a way that they wouldn’t have ever experi­enced if this wasn’t available to them.” The Fiddle Foundation was established in 2000 as a continuing legacy of Daniel, who loved the outdoors and considered nature to be his “freedom,” Fiddle said. The foundation gives grants to programs that can pro­vide recreational, vocational, educational and residential opportunities to adolescents and adults affected by ASD.

“If Danny were here he’d be racing down the trail with the Boy Scouts and having the time of his life,” Fiddle said.

Tanya Drobness works in the Sussex County bureau.
She can be reached at (973) 383-0516 or at tdrobness@starledger.com.