- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2004

A fleet of 23 luxury motor yachts carried dozens of disabled children up and down the Potomac River’s Washington Channel yesterday, as more than 260 family members celebrated the sixth annual “Cruise for Kids.”

The weather was warm and sunny — but not humid or windy — as cruise participants roamed the decks of the private vessels piloted by members of the Capital Yacht Club.

“This is awesome,” said 3-year-old Damani Tichawonna of Southeast, straining to look over the stern of the three-level yacht named Hattillac. “I want to see the water.”

Damani’s father, Sowande Tichawonna, 41, held the boy’s life jacket with one hand as Damani’s mother, Nicole, looked on. Damani suffers from Down syndrome and has been in an early intervention program since he was 5 months old. Down syndrome is a genetic birth defect that occurs once in about every 800 to 1,000 births and affects people of all races and economic levels, according to the National Down Syndrome Society.

Children who participated in the cruise are members or alumni of three area day centers maintained by Easter Seals, one of the nation’s largest nonprofit organizations for disabled persons. The centers’ services include medical rehabilitation, various forms of therapy, child care, adult day care, recreational activities and job training.

“Disabled children and their families can find acceptance at these cruises,” said volunteer Nancy Diggs, 60, an Easter Seals development officer. “Their physical and mental disabilities are anticipated and accommodated, and nobody stares at them.”

Easter Seals also maintains two adult day centers in the D.C. area and plans to open an inter-generational center in Silver Spring within the next two years, said board member and cruise director Peter Yeskel.

Meanwhile, Steve Keenley, 57, captain of the Hattillac and a yacht club member, said he has piloted his turbocharged diesel-engine Hatteras yacht in the annual cruise since 2000.

“It’s a rare opportunity to share your good fortune with people who are less fortunate,” said Mr. Keenley, an Arlington resident who is director of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Investigations.

“This is my third yacht. They’re kind of like houses; you get comfortable with one and then you trade it for another,” he said.

Yesterday’s cruise began at 9 a.m. when a U.S. Navy band soloist welcomed families to the Capital Yacht Club’s headquarters on the Southwest waterfront with a rousing rendition of the national anthem.

More than 20 uniformed Navy volunteers helped load wheelchairs and escort families onto the yachts. The sailors then boarded the cruise vessels.

“Being out here for the kids and seeing them smile at you makes it all worthwhile,” said volunteer Rene Cespedes,19, a member of the Navy Ceremonial Guard. “It makes you feel good about representing the Navy.”

After the yachts returned to port, family members gathered for a picnic at the yacht club’s dockside patio.

“The cruise was great,” said Domonique Robinson, 7, who has spina bifida.

“The waves were really high, and I got to drive the boat. I loved the downstairs part of the boat; it had a little bedroom and kitchen.”

Domonique is among 70,000 people in the United States who suffer from the birth defect. According to the Spina Bifida Association of America, the effects of the disease — ranging from paralysis and buildup of brain fluid to latex allergies and learning disabilities — differ from person to person, and medical advances allows most patients to lead relatively normal lives.

Domonique’s mother, Marie, and her grandmother, Sara Bottoms, said they were attending their third “Cruise for Kids.”

“Domonique gets really excited about it,” said Mrs. Robinson, of Bryan’s Road, Md.

“She was running all over the boat, and she was in a frenzy when we passed Ronald Reagan airport.”

Several waterfront restaurants donated the food for a picnic after the yachts docked at noon.

The antics of a man dressed in a large rubber crab suit delighted the children.

“I’ve done this every year for six years now,” said Angela Hammonds, 18, a cerebral-palsy patient who lives in Northwest. “It’s tough getting up early in the morning, but I love it.”

Cerebral palsy is a term used to describe a group of chronic conditions affecting body movement and muscle coordination.

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