LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — “Hello!” “How are you today?” “Glad you could make it!”
These greetings are often offered as throwaway salutations, but not at this party. Those extending the greetings mean them, every word. And, because this is not your typical party, many are happy just to have an opportunity to extend the greeting at all.
For the past three years, The Good Shepherd Lutheran Church on the corner of Mathistown Road and Route 9 has hosted “Saturday Night Social” — an event that gives adults with developmental disabilities or brain injuries an opportunity to break from routine and have some fun.
And every two weeks, dozens of adults pony up the 50-cent “donation” for the opportunity to play games, dance and, most importantly, meet friends.
“I have a good time here,” said Theodore Cook, Jr., 50, who travels all the way from the Mays Landing section of Hamilton Township for the socials. “I like meeting new friends. … It’s fun.”
Mom saw son in need
Jonathan Waterson felt isolated after he graduated from the Archway Program in Waterford Township, Camden County, at age 21.
The Little Egg Harbor Township resident was born with developmental disabilities that prevented him from being able to walk, talk, hear or use his hands. But during his time at the school — which offers an array of programs for people with special needs — Waterson was able to gain these abilities, make a lot of friends and even get a girlfriend.
After he graduated, he no longer had regular contact with other people his age with similar disabilities. And making friends with the “normal” kids in town proved to be difficult, at best.
“Every parent wants their children to be happy and to have friends. And we just saw him as him,” said Jonathan’s mother, Leslie Waterson, 65, a retired LPN/Social Worker from the Mystic Island section of the township. “But when he left school, he had no one to socialize with. He’d spend his time playing games, watching TV or sleeping. He was very lonely. I just felt sorry for him.”
After a few years of this, Leslie — a member of Good Shepherd’s council — decided to try to help make her son happy again.
“We had two other people in the church with developmental disabilities, and I asked the pastor if it would be possible to start a social group so we could have parties and a place, other than the programs they all go to during the day, to have fun and meet friends,” Leslie said.
She decorated the church’s multi-purpose room to the hilt, but no one came.
“We were all decorated for Memorial Day weekend and I was really discouraged,” she said. “One of the other members of the church stopped by and we told him ‘sit down and have a cupcake! You’re the first member of our group.’ He was our only member.”
But a short time later, she ran into Tuckerton resident Doris Farace shopping at Dollar General with some of her clients from a group home for adults with special needs. Waterson explained her idea to Farace, who immediately began promoting the event to other caregivers, parents and organizations.
“It took off from there. At our last meeting we had over 60 people here, ages 18 to 85. And now it’s such a part of their routine that I don’t dare skip one or I’ll have to hear about it — and I do,” said Waterson, who said a winter ice storm forced her to cancel one of the events and her phone rang off the hook for days. “I even feel bad when the nights end and it’s time to go home, because everyone is so happy to be here.”
Nan DeFilippis works at the Association for the Multiple Impaired Blind, a residential program for people with multiple disabilities that has a location in the Lanoka Harbor section of Lacey Township.
On a recent Saturday night, DeFilippis had three of her clients with her.
“They love coming here,” said DeFilippis, of Lanoka Harbor, as she juggled playing multiple games of bingo at once. “They know when it is and look forward to it. Every two weeks, it’s all they talk about.”
Darla Kane, one of DeFilippis’ clients, smiled after she won a bracelet playing bingo.
“I like it here,” said Kane, 45, adding what she likes most is meeting people.
But it’s not only people with special needs who attend the weekly events.
“We get some senior citizens who are not disabled at all, but who come every two weeks because they are comfortable here,” Leslie Waterson said. “It really is just a warm and friendly atmosphere.”
And some of the volunteers, such as 13-year-old Jonathan Episcopo, try to make it part of their routine as well.
“It makes me feel good to be able to help them out,” said Episcopo, of the Parkertown section of Little Egg Harbor Township, as he helped one of DeFilippis’ clients play bingo. “The people who come here, they expect to see us every two weeks. So we try to make sure we’re here so they’re not disappointed if they don’t see us.”
The socials are now a source of enjoyment for dozens of people who appreciate every minute of them. But no one appreciates them more than Jonathan Waterson.
“My mom started this, because I had a tough time making friends in the neighborhood before,” said Waterson, now 26. “It touched me that she did that. It made me feel good. And now everyone here is happy because of it.”
Swords, archery, bingo
Little Egg Harbor Township resident Kimberly Smith sat fixated on the numbers and letters of a bingo board early into a recent social, when the combination that she needed to win was announced.
“Bingo!” she shouted as she leaped out of her chair. “Bingo! Bingo! Bingo!”
The 23-year-old darted to the prize table, excited at the sight of what, to most adults, would seem like pile of simple items, but to her was a treasure chest.
She scanned the table and quickly snatched up a stuffed poodle, one she would hug tightly against her chest for the remainder of the evening.
“The simplest things in life make them absolutely happy — socializing, inexpensive toys, candy, having their picture taken. Simple things,” said Farace, 67. “It’s a simple party. But I can’t explain the expression on their faces and the warmth that we, as caregivers, feel when they’re happy that way.”
While Waterson said the toy and food donations that are sent for the socials are always greatly appreciated, and very much needed, she said the “events” the partygoers get to attend are the biggest hit.
In addition to barbecues, game nights, and dances, “Saturday Night Social” events have also included a Medieval-themed party featuring re-enactors, sword fighting and archery, numerous birthday parties and even a wedding.
“A lot of them never get invited to birthday parties and weddings, so every month we find out whose birthday is coming up and we celebrate it,” said Waterson, adding that the wedding was for a couple with special needs who renewed their vows on their 25th anniversary.
“We even had a reception afterward and everyone lined up and blew bubbles as they left the church,” she said. “The funny thing is, we had everyone in the audience during the ceremony and they just sat there, without any expression on their faces. ... They were all so quiet and respectful, that we didn’t think they enjoyed it. But, sure enough, it was all any of them talked about on the way home.
“I think it just meant a lot to them to finally get to go to one.”
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