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Special friends celebrate 30 years together

Mystic — It seemed like just another backyard gathering to celebrate the beginning of summer, but for about 10 special friends the cookout was part of a weekly ritual that, against all odds, has entered its 30th year.

When the Groton-based Lighthouse Voc-Ed Center started the social program for people with developmental disabilities in 1987, Executive Director Kathryn Greene said, few like it existed in the region.

At the time, most people in the group were in their teens; now, they are mostly in their 40s.

"It's a very solid group," Greene said during the group's annual picnic, held on the regular Wednesday meeting date. "They have made some deep connections."

The group decides on its own social agenda, but bowling has been big, as well as going out to restaurants and movies.

They have learned ballroom dancing at Arthur Murray's Studio, visited parks, lounged at beaches, played miniature golf, attended art programs, tried their hands at yoga, walked on the Niantic Bay Boardwalk and even given line dancing a twirl.

The group has ranged in size between six and 20 over the years, and most members still live at home with their parents.

A wide range of disabilities is represented, including autism spectrum disorders, but most participants have jobs and are quite verbal.

"They're all over the place," Greene said, "and that's the beauty of the group. ... This is the same as any friends. We have a peer group that has known each other for decades."

Only one person from the original social group is still with the program, Rick Chihocki of Oakdale, but others — such as Wesley Williams, whose mother, Ruth, hosted the cookout on Pequot Avenue — have been with the program for two decades.

"He really enjoys all the people he's known through the years," said Lois Chihocki, Rick's mom. "They've made lasting friendships. ... He looks forward to it."

Asked what he liked best about the group's activities, Rick first mentioned bowling, then added "joking around."

"He picks and chooses what he wants to do," Lois said. "Normally he likes what they're doing."

Will Robinson, a program coordinator for Lighthouse, said some of the members have been boyfriend and girlfriend over the years.

"There's a consistency that's really important," he said.

At the gathering, Wesley Williams spoke about a favorite subject — his Special Olympics career, which has included tennis, sailing, soccer, bowling, softball and assistant coaching in floor hockey.

He just came back from winning a gold medal in tennis at the state Special Olympics championships last weekend in New Haven.

"I don't think I want to put all those medals around my neck," he joked. "I'm thinking about melting them all down and making some money."

Members of the group, who come from as far afield as Bozrah, Franklin and Pawcatuck, get together every three months or so to select their outings, which generally last about two hours.

Parents, who pay $45 a month, drop them at the designated location, from Niantic to Stonington, and then they are off on their own.

"It's just something that they do as a group — no parents," Ruth Williams said.

Unfortunately, Lighthouse program Director Shannon Aiello said, many of these social groups have been hit by state budget cuts and difficulties of aging parents being able to transport their children to the events.

"There's no transportation system in Connecticut," she said.

Some friends left after their parents died, members said, and they were forced to move to group homes that wouldn't work the weekly social events into their calendars.

Still, for those who remain, the Wednesday get-togethers are something to look forward to — a time of bonding when they can share with peers how their day went and all the ups and downs of life.

"This is what transition and social groups are all about: being with peers with common interests and going through all life's stages together," Greene said.

l.howard@theday.com

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