The members of Team Friends of Westmoreland County are not interested in the outmoded ideas about how people with disabilities should be treated.
“The system has come a long way since institutions were the norm,” said Jamie Walker, one of its lead facilitators. “These folks aren’t going to just be housed away somewhere.
“They’re our friends and neighbors and brothers and sisters.”
An offshoot of the Pittsburgh chapter, Team Friends of Westmoreland County takes people with disabilities (“players” on the team) and their parents or caregivers (“coaches”), and finds new ways to integrate them into social circles and into their communities.
But it also gives them a chance to help others.
On Saturday afternoon, about 25 members of the group gathered at Hempfield Church of Christ where they were making blankets that will be distributed to the Welcome Home Shelter on South Maple Avenue.
Deb Cieply, of Smithton has been bringing her boys, 22-year-old Matt and 23-year-old Nathan, to Team Friends events since April.
“Nathan graduated high school in 2016, and after high school, it’s harder for him to socialize and make friends,” Cieply said.
“After high school, that social circle kind of dwindled,” said Walker, who invited the Cieplys to start attending Team Friends activities. When Nathan joined them at a group trip to a recent Pittsburgh Pirates game, he pointed to one of the Team Friends T-shirts and began to cry.
“His mother explained that he was just very happy because he had a group where he felt like he belonged,” Walker said.
Team Friends organizers have held food drives, donated cookies and taken group trips, all in service of seeking to foster a connection between the disabled, those who provide care for them, and the larger community.
The group also organizes training sessions for caregivers that serve as both education and a break from the stress of providing daily care for someone who is disabled.
“While caregivers were in training, everyone else was in the pool doing aquatic exercises,” Walker said. “The hope is that we can form some sort of connection with the people who support them. We don’t want it to be seen like a baby-sitter service. There are other agencies that provide those sort of opportunities.
“We’re looking to do something different,” she said.
Cieply said attending Team Friends events has helped her as well.
“If someone is having a bad day, and I see how their coach is helping them through it, it gives me ideas for working with Nathan and Matt,” she said. “It’s good to know I’m not the only person walking in these shoes.”
Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, [email protected] or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.