KENNEWICK -- The buzz was on from the moment the kids from The Arc of Tri-Cities Summer Camp Partners N Pals got off the vans in Columbia Park.
They came for a special pit tour Friday, faces aglow with excitement.
"Boats make it real nice," said Jeffrey Gerrard, who prefers to be called "JJ." He's been on a pit tour before, said the 16-year-old with a developmental disability who will start at Kennewick High in the fall.
He walked with a group of about 70 kids of varying ages under the watchful of the Arc staff.
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"It feels really good," said JJ, who came ready with a water bottle and a small tube of sunscreen to beat the heat.
The group got a small gift bag containing beef jerky, coupons for free bowling and ice-cream and a colorful Follies schedule.
JJ carried two bags. "The other one is for my brother Tom," he said while admiring an airplane performing aerobatic maneuvers in the sky.
The children on the tour also a got a big poster that many used to get autographs from the hydroplane drivers competing in the 2010 Lamb Weston Columbia Cup.
"Do you like your job?" Clara Lucido asked Steve David, the four-time unlimited hydroplane national champion. "How fast do you go?"
David's answer: "About 200 miles an hour."
"Holy cow! That's fast," said Clara, 23, rolling her eyes. She's from New Mexico but attends the Arc's summer camp for three to four weeks each year because she has a cousin living in the Tri-Cities.
There are no hydroplanes in New Mexico, said Clara, who loves to watch the annual boat races on the Columbia River. "I love it here. There are so many things to do."
The Partners N Pals program makes sure children and young adults with developmental disabilities can enjoy summer like everyone else, said Nichelle Wallskog, Richland site director for the summer camp. The program started 40 years ago with three children and now has about 120 participants, she said. They go bowling, swimming, horseback riding, and for the last few years, they have been taking the pit tour, she said.
Mike Lauria, the guide, was excited as well. The joy of sharing a love for boat racing with the public and making kids smile make him volunteer for the job, said Lauria, who works for Walmart.
Jose Pille, 8, of Pasco, likes looking at the brightly colored boats. He doesn't like the loud noise they make, said his escort Rylie Dean, a recent Southridge High graduate who's heading to Arizona State University in the fall to study medicine. Jose is not verbal, but he does manage to communicate what he likes, Dean said.
Breanna Gooldy, 11, of Richland, soaked in the fun atmosphere of the pit area. "It's really cool," she said. "You get to meet the boaters. It's awesome."
Lindsey Mallonee, a freshman at Southridge High, was happy getting autographs. Watching speeding boats is fun, she said.
She had brought along her "Twilight" book, because she likes reading. "I also like math," Lindsey, 17, declared, adding she wants to be an animal doctor when she grows up.
It hard not to like what you see and hear, said Lauria, who enjoys being with the kids. This year, his daughter is helping him conduct the pit tours, he said as he prepared to welcome another batch of about 50 children from the Partners N Pals program.
-- Pratik Joshi: 582-1541; email@example.com