Saturday, December 10, 2011

The SaratogianWILTON — Army Sgt. Olan Aldrich sustained 120 shrapnel wounds in a rocket-propelled grenade explosion in Iraq.

The Lake Luzerne resident suffers from temporary memory loss and seizures, but has found help through Stride Adaptive Sports, one of three-dozen area nonprofits set up at Saturday’s first-ever Disabilities Awareness Day at Wilton Mall.

The event helped a variety of agencies promote what they have to offer and make connections with people who need their services.

“It’s something we hope to do on an annual basis,” said Roy J. McDonald, R-Saratoga, chairman of the state Senate Committee for Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities. “I want to do the same thing in Rensselaer County at HVCC (Hudson Valley Community College) in April.”

McDonald was joined by U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook; Assemblyman Tony Jordan, R-Greenwich; and several other local elected officials.

The state spends $10 billion per year on programs for people with disabilities, McDonald said.

Numerous nonprofit groups, like those represented Saturday, provide similar services.

Aldrich was wounded in January 2005 but didn’t start suffering serious consequences until some time later. He even went back for a second tour in Iraq.

After contacting Stride, which partners with the Wounded Warrior Project, Aldrich took part in various sports-related activities.

“Now I’ve become a mentor to others,” he said.

The firm not only helps soldiers, but children with special needs, too. Activities run the gamut — skiing, camping, bowling, sailing on Saratoga Lake and a recent Wounded Warrior Fall Family Retreat at Moreau Lake State Park.

Aldrich and his wife, Amanda, volunteered Saturday to help share information about the program with hundreds of busy holiday shoppers at the mall from noon to 5 p.m.

Alzheimer’s Association volunteer Jim Nuttall said the inaugural event served a useful purpose.

“It tells folks what resources are available,” he said. “It’s a reminder to people that there’s help out there if you have a difficult situation in life.”

At Christmas time, nonprofit Saratoga County Children’s Committee conducts an Empty Stocking Project that helps more than 1,000 area kids referred by various agencies.

“This type of thing is nice because it gives us exposure,” committee chair Kathy Kelly said. “If we get just one name here today, that’s one more child we can help. Our goal is to meet children’s basic needs in a really quick fashion.”

For example, the organization recently secured sneakers and basketball uniforms for children who couldn’t afford them.

Other agencies have completely different missions: The Southern Adirondack Tobacco-Free Coalition in Saratoga Springs tries to combat marketing of tobacco products to young children.

“The big tobacco companies are losing smokers every year, so they need a new generation of smokers,” coalition spokesman Matt Andrus said.

Sometimes, posters and store displays are deliberately put at lower heights where children will see them. And a great deal of cigarette advertising is done in convenience stores, where a majority of teens shop, he said.

The coalition counteracts such strategies through education and legislative initiatives, and by working with stores to have them remove displays children are most vulnerable to.

Andrus applauded Saturday’s event as a way to make his group’s message known.

“Any time we can get out in the community and make people aware of issues, it’s more than worthwhile,” he said.