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Claremont Courier - A Local Nonprofit Newsroom

AbilityFirst feast starts holidays, draws smiles

Practice makes perfect, but it helps when there’s a sweet incentive involved. Last Friday, the 35 eager students of AbilityFirst’s after school program learned this first-hand as volunteers doled out pumpkin pie as part of the nonprofit’s annual “Formal Feast,” a prelude to the Thanksgiving holiday.

Though the pie and the mashed potatoes are always a highlight, the sumptuous celebration is about more than just the stuffing. For the students of AbilityFirst—an organization providing programming for children, teens and young adults with physical and developmental disabilities—it’s about preparing for the unexpected that comes along with the holidays.

“When you are an adult with special needs or a developmental disability and there are 20 family members in your home and a bunch of food you aren’t used to, it can be really overwhelming,” said Julie Martin, AbilityFirst’s program director. “We see this as a dress rehearsal.”

For the last several weeks leading up to the big feast, the AbilityFirst students have been hard at work in the name of pie, learning etiquette like table manners, pulling out a chair and using a fork and knife.

“Even the simplest tasks can be a huge challenge, something you and I might take advantage of,” said activity leader Brian Obedoza. “That doesn’t mean they should be treated any differently. We are here to help give them the tools they need to be themselves.”

The manners classes paid off for 10-year-old Isaac Giron, who doled out his pleases and thank yous with eloquence.

“It makes mom and dad happy,” he insisted.

The pre-Thanksgiving preparations weren’t limited to table techniques. Students had a hand in the feast-day set-up as well. The bountiful banquet was made more lavish with colorful, handcrafted creations fashioned by the pupils themselves. Handmade placemats provided the perfect finishing touch to tables lined with students eagerly waiting for the grubbing to begin.

The tables have remained full for the past several years thanks to the teams at LVP Distribution and Wolfe’s Market, responsible for not only providing all the Thanksgiving staples—turkey, stuffing, cranberries, mashed potatoes and gravy and vegetables—but preparing and dishing out the foods as well. Sales representative Chris Pillow went a step further in his dedication to the cause, donning the coveted “turkey suit” for the amusement of the students. Suit or no suit, he is pleased to provide for the AbilityFirst students and for the time spent with his 18-year-old son Ty, who has attended AbilityFirst for the past 10 years.

“Thanksgiving is about family,” Mr. Pillow said. “The food is great too, but it’s also about getting together with the ones you love.”

As Mr. Pillow waddled around in feathered gear, 17-year-old Richard Napier donned a suit of a different kind in anticipation of the special occasion. Richard was the picture of poise in a polished black blazer.

“It’s polite,” he said in explanation of his fancy get-up.

Richard is not bashful in explaining all he has to be thankful for, such as his iPad loaded with favorite games like Connect Four and Uno, swimming and lifeguards, his family and his mom, who cooks a mean Thanksgiving meal.

Among his long list of gratitude, Rich is quick to mention one of the things he is most thankful for. “I love AbilityFirst,” he said without hesitation. “They have a Thanksgiving feast and Santa Claus. It’s fun.”

The AbilityFirst staff say they love being able to take part in the fancy meals and holiday fanfare along with their students, but maintain that the biggest perk is something else entirely.

“It’s important our students see how valued they are,” Ms. Martin said. “They deserve it.”

—Beth Hartnett

news@claremont-courier.com

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