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Very special mural kicks off Olympics

Herald Staff Writer

--Published Friday, October 23, 1998, in the Miami Herald

For a little while each day, Cinthia Castro managed to control her usually uncontrollable twitches and jerks and command her feeble fingers to hold a brush and paint.

Out of her creativity, and that of 12 students like her at Kensington Park Elementary, evolved a grand mural with splashes of bright blues, shocking pinks and sunlight yellows, sprinkled with bats and balls and self-portraits.

The 60-foot mural -- which they named ``The Gift'' -- stands as a symbol of achievement in spite of at times insurmountable obstacles for thousands of children who tonight officially become athletes of the 1999 Special Olympics in Miami-Dade County.

The mural will be unveiled during opening ceremonies to kick off the Olympics at 6:30 p.m. in downtown Miami's Bayfront Park.

For the past 3 1/2 weeks, Cinthia, 9, and her classmates at the Little Havana-area school diligently labored on the painting, supervised by Miami artist Xavier Cortada.

He was asked by Special Olympics officials to work with mentally disabled children to create a mural for the games. Kensington Park, at 711 NW 30th Ave., is one of the district's Exceptional Student Education centers and enrolls 200 in its special education programs.

``I knew what it took for these kids to do this. It was very, very difficult,'' Cortada said. ``For many of them, it took everything they had.''

It was a long, tedious process.

Even before bringing out a single paint brush, Cortada had to find a way to explain the concept of sports to the youngsters -- 10- and 11-year-olds whose minds function like kindergartners.

``I got dolls and had them running around paper bases so that they could understand the game of baseball,'' Cortada said. ``Then we went outside to the playground and we played.''

Finishing the work was a testament of will power for the mentally and physically challenged fourth- and- fifth-graders, all of whom have trouble performing the simplest of tasks, like tying their shoes or holding a pencil.

About half of those in the class suffer from Down's syndrome, a congenital condition that makes them especially susceptible to infection, including bacterial meningitis.

Cinthia and several others, whose bodies move spontaneously even when they don't want them to, have cerebral palsy.

``I kept challenging them,'' Cortada said. ``I wouldn't just step in for them. I wouldn't draw for them.

``I felt it would have been patronizing for me to do the work for these kids,'' he said. ``Whenever I needed to do touch-up, they were always in the room. I wanted them to feel the connection.''

Slowly, a stroke at a time, the children caught on.

``As a result, their social skills have improved and their ability to follow directions,'' said exceptional education teacher Janet Ludwig, who works with teacher assistant Luis Alvarinas. ``They somehow got the message that there was no second chance, that they had to do what he said at the time he said to do it.''

The kids followed difficult instructions, like tracing outlines of each others' bodies to create 13 silhouettes lined along the canvas like pint-sized soldiers.

They cut out squiggly hearts and placed them at the center of the images -- a symbol of the strength it took for them to remain focused for so long, even when they felt they couldn't.

``We thought it appropriate to place the hearts there, because many of these kids have had multiple heart surgeries,'' Ludwig said, ``and this is definitely a work from the soul.''

The children weren't the only ones who got a lot out of this oftentimes emotional exercise in stretching beyond limits.

``It was sheer joy,'' said Cortada, who has worked before with children with AIDS and cancer. ``It was about me as an artist learning from these kids, seeing joy in a subtle way. The way they called me X when I walked in the classroom. The way they smiled.

``My heart became very soft. I saw the world in another way by being with these kids.

``I remember walking out of the class one day and saying, `My God, I'm blessed.' ''