Monday, October 25, 2010

Minnesota social club brings young people with disabilities together for community service, cooking, fun activities

From The Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn. In the picture, Jake Pritzker, 25, left, and David Bender, 23, encourage each other Monday during a meeting of the Highland Friendship Club for disabled young people.

Maria Martino arrived in Roseville from Argentina, unable to speak English and suffering from brain damage from birth.

Her mother, Liliana Orsi, wanted to find affordable activities for Maria, now 31, who also has high visual impairment. In Minnesota, special-education programs end when a person turns 21, and families are often left with few social options for their children.

"It comes to a point where you just want them to have fun," Orsi said.

After five years of searching, Orsi heard about Highland Friendship Club, which offers activities for young people with disabilities.

The nonprofit, which has served hundreds, also helps members connect socially.

Martino has participated for two years in girls' night out, a cooking club, a culture club, and community-service projects through the club's partnership with Feed My Starving Children — just a few of the group's activities.

The club was founded in 2002 by Pat Leseman and Rosemary Fagrelius, two St. Paul mothers who started with no budget — just a "fire in their bellies" and a desire for their disabled sons to have the same opportunities for social interaction and recreation as their other children.Since its beginning eight years ago, Highland Friendship Club has grown to 180 members this year.

On Monday, Friendship Club members began a collaboration with Twin Cities-based Upstream Arts on an eight-week curriculum that includes painting, acting, dancing and music, often all in one session.

The group met in an art room at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul.

With desks pushed aside, the room became an impromptu art studio in which 14 participants brandished jokes as well as paintbrushes.

In another activity, two participants crossed from one side of their circle of chairs to another, using a descriptor such as "open" or "curvy" as a basis for their movement.

Club member Mike Leseman drew laughter and cheers when in response to the word "closed," he stood as if stuck to his chair and carried it across the circle with him.

Club activities, such as the Upstream Arts night, cost participants $5 to $40. The fees don't fully cover activity and staffing costs, so the group relies on individual contributions, special event support and grant money.

Its biggest annual fundraiser, Lanes for Friendship, features Joe Mauer, the Minnesota Twins star who went to school with the Leseman children.

At the event, businesses, families and community organizations sponsor bowling teams of club members, celebrity guests and sponsors.

Renee Pritzker of Pritzker Olsen, a law firm that sponsors the fundraiser, said Highland Friendship Club gives her son Jake, who has a neurogenetic disorder, a network of caring friends.

This past summer, Jake Pritzker took part in the club's first "Movie Studio Magic," in which participants helped write a script, create a set, make costumes and film a movie-musical called "Romancing the Force."

The movie was directed by HFC staff members Dusty and Katie Thune and opened to a full house at Hillcrest Community Recreation Center in St. Paul.

Pritzker said many people might wonder how her son, who doesn't speak, could have an acting role in the project.

"Well, he played Jake the Mime. He had the hat, the gloves ... and he'd hold up his lines on a storyboard," Pritzker said. "During the dance numbers, instead of having a personal-care assistant help him walk, they rolled his wheelchair really fast across the stage so he was totally on his own playing the role."

The movie was a chance for Highland Friendship Club members to "celebrate who they are," Pritzker said.

Another member of the club, Emily Colaizy, 32, said it changed her life. Colaizy, who has developmental disabilities and significant hearing loss, joined five years ago, she said, when she was shy, had one or two friends from her job and didn't go out much or exercise.

Now, Colaizy goes to club events two to three nights a week and is the first to greet a newcomer to the club. When she decided to join the fitness club, Colaizy learned how to work out and swim.

"Now I'm one of the ones in the deep end," Colaizy said.