Casey's Place gives young adults with special needs their own gathering spot
Published 2:19 pm, Thursday, December 9, 2010
"Ha, ha, gotcha!" Steven Weithers hoots triumphantly as the Uno card he plays ensures that one of his opponents must draw again from the deck and their raucous game will continue.
Beside them, at another card table, an equally lively but less voluble group of young and older adults also is playing Uno as well as getting reacquainted, finding common ground with newcomers and telling jokes ("What did the fish say when he hit the wall?" Patrick Ross asks his tablemates. "Dam!" he answers to appreciative laughter before anyone else has a chance to respond.)
At still other tables, as the Black Eyed Peas sing "Tonight's gonna be a good, good night" and the aroma of pizza wafts from an oven, the cards and chessboard are ignored in favor of reminiscing over an album of Halloween party photos and catching up with friends.
This is the November gathering at Casey's Place, where young adults with special needs meet on the second Friday of each month from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in Wakeman Hall at the First Church Congregational, 148 Beach Road. From October through May, Casey's Place provides a safe, supervised environment where young people 18 and older can socialize, listen to music, play games and enjoy snacks.
Now in its fifth year, Casey's Place is named for a valiant young woman who battled cancer not just once but twice -- first as a 4-year-old with leukemia and later as a recent university graduate with tumors in her brain -- but ultimately lost the fight in 2004. Despite her struggles and suffering, Casey Laster achieved many goals, according to her mother, Jan, including graduating with a Master of Arts degree from Fairfield University; walking the marathon in Dublin, Ireland; and traveling alone to meet and visit with her father in Egypt.
"Dealing with the continual and devastating loss of skills, gifts and capacity, Casey grew in strength, courage and determination," her mother wrote in a letter of introduction posted on the bulletin board in the entryway to Wakeman Hall. As a tribute to her daughter, Jan Laster and several other church members created the non-denominational Casey's Place to help young adults with special needs live their lives to the fullest. "Above all, Casey dearly loved social gatherings, music, her friends, and sharing her quick wit. May Casey's Place reflect her strength, calmness, her dignity in adversity, her love and compassion for all, her loving spirit, and her zest for life," Jan Laster wrote.
Now, with Casey's Place well established, the organizers are looking to attract more participants and volunteers -- from Fairfield and surrounding communities -- as well as support.
Cathy Lambert, one of the founders of Casey's Place and a special education teacher at Osborn Hill School, took the time on a recent afternoon in the Learning Resource Center there to talk about the gathering's past, present and future. "The first meeting, I think we had five or 10 people," she recalled. "And then they started coming -- you know, somebody would say, `Oh, yeah, come on over,' and then they'd invite more people. So it basically started like that. We have roughly 30 young people who have registered, and at any one time [at a meeting] it's usually between 20 and 25."
Initially, the members were all former students of Lambert's from her years of teaching at Jennings School. More recently, though, the Jennings alumni have been joined by young people from other areas of Fairfield and from Trumbull, Westport and Bridgeport. "They've become fast friends," said Lambert. "They're just very, very happy, and they're very caring to one another, and they're very excited to see old friends who they used to go to elementary school with."
While the doors to Casey's Place are open to family members as well, "it seems like a good opportunity for parents to have an hour and a half to themselves on a Friday night, so if they want to go out for a quick bite to eat, they can do it without having their young people [along]," Lambert said. "We're trying to provide that as a service too. And we have had meetings where the parents get together to talk about the issues that they have -- respite care or jobs [for their children] or things like that. We'd love to be able to facilitate and help with jobs. That would be something that would be great -- you know, if any organizations had volunteer jobs that they would be willing to have young people with special needs fill."
Some of the members of Casey's Place already do have jobs -- in family businesses, at Trader Joe's and at HomeGoods, for example. "Somebody works at St. Vincent's [Medical Center] in the Records Department," said Lambert. "Two young girls work at Holland Hill in the after-school program ... If we could help more of them get some job experience, that would be great."
The organizers also would like to ensure that Casey's Place is financially secure. An anonymous donor provided the original funding and the Special Education PTA and the Regional Youth/Adult Substance Abuse Project have awarded grants, but the goal, Lambert said, is to become "affiliated with something like The Kennedy Center," which is a not-for-profit rehabilitation agency supporting children and adults with disabilities in Connecticut with vocational, residential, therapeutic, social and recreational programs. "We'd like to have some sort of umbrella group that's a little more financially sound than we are to take it over so it doesn't just go by the wayside. We want to continue with it."
In October, Lambert e-mailed colleagues in the school district with an invitation for new members and volunteers. At the Nov. 12 gathering, Tim Wagner, a special education teacher at Fairfield's alternative high school, was among those who took her up on the offer. "One night a week, one week a month -- I can do that," he thought.
Wagner spent much of the evening playing Uno and then reflected on his experience in an e-mail several days later. "How could you not like a place where adults with specials needs can get together and just hang out with others for a few hours?" he wrote. Although he was nervous at first, just because he was trying something new and didn't know what to expect, he said, the attendees were great. "Everyone's personalities seemed to rise to the surface as they were playing their games. Jokes were being told, they were laughing at volunteers, laughing at each other, just having a great time ... It has been a long time for me since I had so much fun playing Uno." Wagner said he definitely will be going back.
Liz Horvath has been volunteering at Casey's Place for more than two years now. A special education paraprofessional at Osborn Hill, Horvath has worked with elementary school students with intellectual disabilities. "So it intrigued me a bit to want to see what happened to these kids when they go through the system in Fairfield," she said in an interview at the school.
At first, "I was really surprised that they were not so much different from your typical teenagers and young adults, with the texting of each other and the fighting and the relationships that they had, like boyfriend and girlfriend, starting up. And I was just so surprised that -- wow! -- they have better social lives than I do," Horvath said, laughing, "because they're, like, texting each other and wanting to interact with each other and go to dinner."
Since then, she said, she's noticed that both Casey's Place and its members have grown. "I think through word of mouth more people are coming, and you're starting to see that they're reaching out to these new people and wanting to engage with them and come out of their shells and not be as confined to their small group." Members are becoming much more independent too, she said. "In the beginning there was a lot of twirling of the hair and the eyes would be cast down and the not wanting to approach another person in the group because they were afraid, and now it's like running up to that person and saying, `Hey, we're friends. Do you want to play a game with me? Can I call you later? Let's listen to music.' Just that camaraderie there -- it's special to see that."
Horvath said her favorite part of Casey's Place is "you leave there with a feeling of happiness that these kids for an hour and a half feel like they're just the same, that they're not different. They don't have to act a certain way; they don't have to be a certain way. Everybody accepts them for who they are."
Who they are and what they need vary widely. They range in age from 18 to mid-40s. Some have intellectual disabilities, some have difficulties with vision, hearing or movement, and some use wheelchairs, walkers or other aids.
Vanessa Griffin-Hurwich, who has been a member for several years, has cerebral palsy, which affects her right side and speech. For her, Casey's Place "is a great place to relax and be with friends," she said via e-mail. Among the people she has met is Lauren Pelletier, who also has cerebral palsy. "When I first met Lauren, I knew right away that this was going to turn into a special friendship," Griffin-Hurwich said. "Ever since then, when we're together we are so happy. I've enjoyed spending time with her, at her home, and have become close to her family as well."
Griffin-Hurwich works for The Kennedy Center in Woodbridge for two days a week as a receptionist, in Trumbull for one day a week entering data, and now in Monroe for two days a week helping Pelletier in a program called Enable. "I love to laugh with her and just be around her and make her smile. In addition, I help her to eat lunch and enjoy being her companion while she is there."
Brian Gifford also is an enthusiastic member of Casey's Place. At November's meeting, during the introductory circle time, he was proud to share the news that he'd attained first- and second-degree status in the Knights of Columbus and that he is striving "to become more independent," news that was met with hearty congratulations and applause from his fellow members and volunteers.
Coincidentally, independence in the kitchen (along with a tasty meal) is the focus for the gathering on Dec. 10. Ginny Hogan, who teaches a culinary course for students with special needs through the town's adult education program, will facilitate a lesson in "survival cooking," which will culminate in a holiday dinner and "grab bag" gift exchange.
Scheduled for January is a karaoke night, followed in February by a Valentine's party with a disc jockey, in March by a games night, in April by a program on summer safety presented by the Fairfield Police Department, and in May by a picnic with a DJ.
For more information about Casey's Place or to register to be a member or to sign up to be a volunteer, e-mail Lambert at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 203-259-2241.