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Norwell's Friendship Club hits a milestone

Posted by dinouye  September 26, 2009 07:47 PM

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It was the first night at the Norwell Friendship Club for Peter Christopher Johnson.

The 21-year-old Johnson said he didn’t know what to expect, or if he would fit in, or whether he was going to like the club.

He need not have worried.

Within hours, members joked that Johnson was king of the kitchen because of his culinary skills, which he practices daily as a food preparation employee at Scituate High School. He was also heralded as a movie star for his role in the independent film ‘‘The Child King,’’ a critically acclaimed story about a young man with Down syndrome determined to take his little brother to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus — a lead role he landed from his work at Plymouth Rock Studios.

‘‘I’ve met a lot of these kids from school and other things,’’ Johnson said, surrounded by the evening’s dinner crew, ‘‘but I don’t really know them. This is fun.’’

Friendship Club was the first program offered when the Friendship Home opened in 1999, and today the nonprofit organization has clubs in four towns, with members hailing from Milton to Cape Cod. The group’s mission is to help adults with developmental disabilities, as well as their parents and guardians.

On Sunday, Friendship Home celebrates 10 years of service and the groundbreaking for an activities center and respite home in Norwell — a milestone that results from a decade of knocking on doors, making phone calls, and applying for grants to raise money for the building.

‘‘We are really excited about the new Friendship Home and the many things the new space will help us do,’’ said Lauren Payne, Friendship Home’s executive director.

The new building, being constructed on donated land behind the United Church of Christ in Norwell, will serve as headquarters for the Friendship Clubs and expanded activities.

It will also be a place for parents to send their developmentally disabled children for overnight and weekend retreats, where parents will know they are in a safe and supportive environment.

One of Friendship Home’s founders is Wilma Goodhue, the mother of 33-year-old Michael, who has Down syndrome. Goodhue said she understands how difficult it is for parents to find free time to spend with a friend, go shopping, have a weekend getaway, read a book, or even get a good night’s sleep.

‘‘Unless you live it, you don’t know what it’s like,’’ Goodhue said. ‘‘It’s 24 hours a day. Some of our parents haven’t had a day off in 20 years.’’

The new home isn’t the only thing causing excitement at Friendship Home these days.

Until now, Friendship Clubs have been open to members age 22 and up. But on Sept. 16, a juvenile Friendship Club was launched in Scituate. It’s the first club with members age 16 to 21, opening the door to new social opportunities for youths.

The first Friendship Club began at the Norwell Senior Center, with the help of Council on Aging director Rosemary O’Connor, who has let the club meet in the basement rent-free ever since. Other adult clubs meet at Pilgrim Church in Duxbury and Covenant Church in Quincy.

The three adult clubs meet twice a month and serve 75 members from Southeastern Massachusetts. Payne said members pay $90 per quarter, and that no one is turned away because of their inability to pay. Eligibility depends on age, desire to join, and the client’s abilities.

The clubs offer recreation, social activities, education, and vocational training for members, who have such conditions as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and autism.

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Most of the club members live with their parents. Public school systems educate special-needs children until they are 22. After that, their parents and relatives have the full-time responsibility to care for them. There are 10,800 state-subsidized residential housing units that provide 24-hour-a-day supervision for adults, but that falls far short of the 33,000 who need assistance, said Kenneth Smith, assistant deputy commissioner for the state Department of Developmental Services.

That leaves a chasm of service that Friendship Home and other organizations are trying to fill.

‘‘We cheer them on,’’ Smith said, noting the agency’s southeastern regional director, Rick O’Meara, will attend today’s groundbreaking ceremony. ‘‘The type of program and services they are offering is so important. There’s not enough,’’ he said.

There is also not enough money, making fund-raising a constant.

To help pay the $3 million construction and first-year operating costs of the new Norwell home, Friendship Home won a $250,000 grant from the Sunshine Lady Foundation and has raised $1.8 million.

Payne said benefactors have been sought, and some have come to them out of the blue — such as an October ‘‘duathlon’’ in Scituate that will raise money for three charities, including Friendship Home.

At the Norwell club’s recent meeting, members made plans for volunteers to organize a face-painting station and ring toss for the festival. The Duxbury club will make and sell arts and crafts, while the Quincy club will make lemonade and host scarecrow bowling.

Some Friendship Club members who are Special Olympics veterans will participate in the 12-mile bicycling leg of the duathlon or the 4.7-mile running portion. Others will walk a modified course.

One Norwell club member, 28-year-old Katie Ingersoll from Hingham, wanted to be part of the walk, but would have to trade in her walker for a wheelchair and would need someone to push her along the course.

At a recent meeting, the members were asked if anyone would volunteer for that role. Instantly, hands shot up around the room.

Shannon Driscoll, a 33-year-old member from Braintree who has Down syndrome, gave a simple explanation for helping Ingersoll.

‘‘It’s a friendship club,’’ Driscoll said. ‘‘That’s what we do.’’

L.E. Crowley can be reached at lecrowley1@yahoo.com

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