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Autistic child’s memory lives on in wildlife trail

The Bergen Record

Daniel Fiddle’s family envisioned him running along a path, chasing a dog, and looking for signs of wildlife Sunday afternoon on the newly - created Wildlife Habitat Trail at High Point Farm. But the Ridgewood boy, who was autistic, was there in spirit only, having suffered an accidental death in January 2000, when he was 9 years old. His memory lives on with the trail, however, which was dedicated to him Sunday, under a clear sky, in Montague.

“I always dreamed Danny would live and work in a place like this, and he would have just loved this,” said Linda Fiddle, Daniel’s mother. “Maybe this will help open the way for a lot more opportunities for adolescents and adults living with autistic spectrum disorders.”

The trail was created through the combined efforts of a Boy Scout troop, a foundation in Daniel’s memory, and the Foundation House, a non-profit organization that owns the property and runs programs there for the mentally disabled. The trail spans two miles and includes benches, four viewing sites, and a picnic area.

Stephen Kovalchick of Clifton, who knew a friend of Daniel’s through scouting, thought of the idea while looking for a project to earn his Eagle Scout award. He worked with about 15 other troop members for two weekends last fall, locating spots for viewing sites, clearing brush, building benches, and laying down wood chips.

“I really wanted to get back to the outdoors for my project – I was just hoping the areas weren’t going to rebel like in other spots,” Kovalchick said. “But there was minimal vegetation, and the trail actually came out better than I thought.”

A good portion of the funding for the trail - $7,500 out of $10,500 – came from The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation, which was established in Daniel’s memory to fund programs benefiting adolescents and adults with autistic spectrum disorders, or ASD.

Although the Fountain House does not generally work with neurologically disabled people, such as those with ASD, Fiddle thought the interaction between the members and scouts was a fitting tribute to her son.
“I saw while Danny was growing up that there were many programs for very young children…but as they got older, there really weren’t many things for them,” Fiddle said. “Having people from the Fountain House work with people who are not mentally disabled is very important, and I’m hoping more programs will be started like this one.”

The Fountain House, located in Manhattan, has 1,300 members, all with psychiatric disorders. The organization owns High Point Farm, part of a 477 – acre park on the border of New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. It provided the remainder of the funding.

Members stay at the farm for a week at a time, helping to care for the livestock, tend the garden, package farm-grown vegetables and fruits, and cook and serve their own meals. A number of them helped build the nature trail.

“It’s a way for our members to back into working, to being productive, to get back to their lives,” said Susan Sena, assistant director of Fountain House. “It’s also just nice for them to get out of the city.”

The farm and trail are not open to the public except for a few days in the spring and fall. Dates will be posted on the Fountain House web site: www.fountainhouse.org.

“This is such a good place. I worked to put the wood chips in and helped clear the trees,” said Keith Winchel, a Fountain House member. “It’s beautiful. I’m kind of shy so I like being out in nature, and feel very comfortable here.”