Institutionalized, But Unique in Knights' Eyes

SOUTHBURY, Conn. — When Louis opened his present and saw it was a prayer book in Polish, which he could read, he was thrilled beyond words.

Louis, now 90, lives at South-bury Training School, run by the Connecticut Department of Mental Retardation. He got his gift from the Knights of Columbus, Blessed John XXIII Council, in Monroe, Conn., which has been visiting residents of Southbury every month except summers since 1970.

Their 34-year-long commitment is unmatched. But the Knights never intended to set records.

“Just by being there, shaking hands with the men, putting our arm around them, means a great deal for them,” explained Grand Knight Gary Thomas, who has been visiting the school since he joined the council 18 years ago. “The people who care for them at Southbury say that before we arrive, the men know we're supposed to be there, and they're peeking out the window.”

Tom Pleva didn't stop going either, once he made his first visit. He remembers his first night as chairman for the visits, a position he's held since 1984. “I realized I had no idea what the 48 bingo prizes we needed should be. My secretary said that her sister worked at Southbury and the guys would love anything — why not give a GE pocket planner calendar?”

Halfway through bingo, Pleva walked up behind Lenny, who had just won.

“He was holding this pocket planner in his two hands, slowly rocking in his chair, hugging the planner to his chest, and crying,” Pleva said. “I bawled on the spot.”

For the past 25 years, the Knights have visited Cottage 16. When they started, most of that cottage's 50 residents were 30 to 45 years old.

The number of residents has dropped to 21, and most are in their late 50s through 80s.

“They become an extension of the family and in a special way become good friends,” Thomas said. “The residents are very loving, and they need love and outside faces to identify with.”

Bingo games are always a hit. So are birthday, Halloween and Christmas parties.

“I enjoy everything,” said Bob, a longtime resident. “I like the soda and doughnuts. They always bring good things to eat. Playing bingo is fun, and the prizes are good.”

One on One

Scott Zeidler, the supervisor of Cottage 16 for the entire time the Knights have visited, explained that the visits go beyond food and presents because the Knights always pay personal attention to the men.

“This one-on-one attention and recognition from someone outside of their home is great for their self esteem,” he said. Zeidler described how the Knights talk to Louis about his Polish heritage because they know how important that is to him.

“These guys look so forward to seeing the Knights and getting the visits, they talk about it from the time of the last visit ‘til they come again,” said Pat Sampieri, second-shift supervisor.

“Everything is individualized,” she said, noting that the men end up with at least five Christmas presents each. “Even in the residents who aren't able to speak for themselves, you see smiles and reactions in different ways.”

Karen Kalenauskas, head of Southbury's recreation department, agreed. The Knights “look for something very moving and special for each person,” she said. “I remember one year an older man opened the box, and there was a baby-blue sweater. It was the best gift he could get.

“The council gets gifts that are really touching for the men,” she said. “If it could be the perfect gift, they have gotten it, thanks to working with the staff.”

Sometimes the smallest gift can mean a breakthrough in a resident's life. Michael Sereno, 36, a Knight for less than two years, approached one resident, invited to a party, who had not reacted to anything in the past and had not acknowledged him before.

Not this time, though. “I got her to take something from my hand, and she never did that before,” he said. “That was pretty special.”

“A number of the guys at the cottage are Catholic,” Pleva said. “We've bought angels, rosaries, religious goods.”

Gold Medals

This summer, the council marked another milestone as it celebrated 25 years of holding mini-Olympics for Southbury's residents.

Thomas explained that when the council realized hundreds of Southbury residents could not go to the regional or national Special Olympics because of their stage of development or handicap, the council decided to run their own.

Kalenauskas, who helped start it, said the May event now involves about 150 residents who compete in activities like a short-distance walk, ramp bowling and bocce.

Zeidler likens the relationship to a good marriage — in sickness and in health. “These folks have seen a lot of individuals through to their passing and through health issues they've encountered,” he said. “It's easy to give up in a situation like that. But these guys, the Knights have stuck with them. My guys appreciate it so much.”

This year, the council was recognized for its work with a certificate of appreciation from the Special Olympics, and former Connecticut Gov. John Rowland declared May 1, 2004, as Knights of Columbus from Monroe (Council) Day in the state.

But the council doesn't look for awards.

“The Knights who go there get a better appreciation of life and the gifts God has given them and how fortunate they are, and they want to share the gifts and talent they have with these men,” said Msgr. John Sabia, the council's chaplain for 24 years and pastor of St. Jude Church, the council's home base.

“It's wonderful they set aside that night to bring a little joy and happiness to those men,” he said, noting they sometimes “have to sacrifice a family event or another event to be committed to South-bury.”

By the same token, wives and children come to help with parties and the mini-Olympics, and Knights who go regularly have seen their faith enhanced.

“It gives us the opportunity for a brief moment to be Christ-like because, without any reason other than the desire to help someone in need, we do what we do,” Thomas said. “We've been doing it because the Church and Jesus ask us to help those whose needs are greater than our own.”

Pleva is no less reflective. “When I go up there, my faith is in action. You come home and you feel much closer to God and so warm about what is going on. You thank God for the opportunity to feel that.”

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.