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MOVE TO INCLUDE is a partnership between WXXI and the Golisano Foundation designed to promote inclusion for people with intellectual and physical disabilities. Through programming and special events, WXXI and the Golisano Foundation look to build a more inclusive community by inspiring and motivating people to embrace different abilities and include all people in every aspect of community life.

'First of its kind' Autism Nature Trail nearing reality at Letchworth

Five years ago, a retired school administrator from Batavia named Loren Penman had a conversation with her neighbor. What she didn’t know then is that talk would inspire the next phase of her life. 

Penman said her neighbor was hoping that her grandson Ali, who lives in Albany, could get back to Letchworth State Park soon. She told Penman that Ali was a different kid inside the park.

“She went on to tell me that Ali had autism, and at 7 years old had no language and was almost always in a state of agitation except when she brought him to visit Letchworth State Park,” said Penman.

Within days, Penman says another neighbor, Susan Herrnstein, told her the same thing happened with her grandson. Penman and Herrnstein researched it and felt it was no coincidence. They believe that being surrounded by nature can make a difference for people with autism. 

So they decided to do more. 

Half a decade later, Penman and Herrnstein’s passion project now involves local advocate Gail Serventi, actor Joe Mantegna, the Perry Central School District, and others who are all working to make an Autism Nature Trail inside the park.

Penman said her experience working in Webster and Irondequoit schools districts is part of why she’s pushed for the trail.

“I was a school administrator for many years, and I always felt like there wasn’t enough we could do, should do, were doing, for children with developmental disabilities,” she said.

The privately funded trail will create wheelchair-friendly paths, a maze, and a music circle, among other inclusive options. They still need to raise nearly $2 million to complete the project.

New York State Parks Commissioner Erik Kulleseid said the project was the first of its kind in the United States.

“It’s going to be for everybody,” said Kulleseid. “We’re going to learn about each other and maybe hopefully put away some myths that have not been helpful to treating this community and helping it to fully participate in this culture and society.” 

Kulleseid said private funding for passion projects inside state parks are becoming increasingly common. He also said that “friends groups” helpbuild the quality of the park experience.

This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.