The best thing we do as a local Exchange Club is the Christmas party for a group home of eight mentally challenged adults.
This is more than raising funds for a good cause. This is the good cause itself.
“We’re actively involved,” said club secretary Walter Landergan. “We connect with people. You can do only so many fund-raisers. You can hand out only so many checks.”
Each year we get a wish list from the staff and shop for the eight adults — two women and six men. These gifts are delivered by Santa Claus in the midst of a buffet, followed by the singing of Christmas carols. I always leave with a good feeling.
“It’s a lot of work,” said past president Cyndy Lewis, “but I really find this to be the most satisfying of what we do. We do a whole event — from cutting the tree, bringing in the food, Santa handing out gifts, and singing Christmas carols. I always leave with a warm feeling. ”
Now. let me say right up front, this takes some getting used to, as admitted by member Bruce Connor: “I have a difficult time with the party. I don’t know why. I guess I just don’t know what to do. I feel lost. But even though I don’t feel comfortable, they get a kick out of our being there. So it’s worth it. It’s one of the finest things we do.”
We have done this for several years, and the clientele, with one exception, remained the same, so we are visiting old friends. I am never prouder of my Exchange friends, such as big, burly Tony Fusco, sitting on a couch with Sandy and reading a gift magazine with her as she points to and pronounces the things she recognizes.
For me. the most profound moment one year was having Dickie get up from his chair when we were singing carols, cross the room, put his head on my shoulder, and start sobbing. I didn’t know he was happy or sad. I didn’t know if one of the musical selections had touched his memory. He just cried, so I held him and patted him on the back.
“Didn’t you know?” asked president Newton Blakesley at the board of directors meeting the next week. “He’s dying of cancer. He won’t be there next year. If it had been me in your place, I don’t know if I could have held myself together.”
“He wants to die there with his friends,” added Cyndy. “It was his last Christmas.”
Needless to say. I was stunned but I hadn’t known at the time. I hope I was of some comfort to Dickie.
Standing next to us at that moment was Keith, who in past years wore boots and a black leather jacket, though this year he was wearing more casual things. The highlight for Keith is the singing of the carols. It always seemed incongruous to me to see and hear what looks like a member of a motorcycle gang singing Christmas carols at the top of his voice, but he does.
“Christmas is a time when people who don’t sing will sing,” said our guitarist member Bob Curcio. “There’s something about singing and Christmas. I only get to play the guitar once all year. I wouldn’t have a chance without that party. Christmas is something special when you do something for someone else. I feel special after that party. I enjoy it the most out of all the things we do.”
Most of the time Keith was on target with the verses. When he got ahead of us on occasion, charter member Bob McGrail gave him a good-natured kidding, which brought out a big smile in Keith.
Also smiling was Tom, dressed in a jacket and tie, who arrived at the party from his work site a co-worker he introduced as his fiancee. As I looked at her and heard her name, a bell from the past rang in my memory. She had been a high student of mine some fifteen years before during the early efforts to mainstream special needs students into the classroom. That time frame would have put her in her thirties which is the usual life expectancy for one with Down’s Syndrome. But there she was, chaperoned by a staff member from her own group home. She remembered me but she was obviously more interested in her fiance.
After the gifts had been handed out. Tom, a sports buff, pulled Santa aside to ask him to the wedding and to ask for a pair of tickets to a Celtics game.
Santa Claus, looking much like our own Jim Temple, commented, “I told him I would try to get to the wedding, but the reindeer are out grazing for the summer, building up their strength for Christmas Eve. I enjoy being Santa because they really believe in me.
“Working with the elderly is my first choice.” he continued. They appreciate it. Kids expect things. But when you’re working with adults who are child-like, it’s a real nice blend of both. Every year this becomes more of a tradition. It’s the most special thing we do. They appreciate it so much.”
The party had an impact on other members as well.
“l was amazed.” said member Val Day, “Getting married. Asking Santa to the wedding. They’re looking forward to life. not Just surviving. ”
“Having conversations with people gives meaning to their lives,” she added. “l really l00k forward to the party I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Nor would local member and district secretary Tony Fusco, who commented, “l find that no matter how stressed I feel at this time of year when I attend that night, I, without, question leave with the true feeling of Christmas.”
One year, for the last time, a set of patents was in attendance at the party. They were curious as to who we were and asked their son Evan.
“It’s the Friendship Club,” he explained, unable to think of our official name.
“l think that sums it all up,” said his mother. ”He considers you as friends coming to a party. People will give money and drop off gifts, but very few people will come and spend an evening. My son and the others look forward to it. It was absolutely wonderful.”
The Friendship Club. I like that.