On Thursday the clients of Community Life Program ate a pancake breakfast, took a leisurely walk, heard an author speak about New Haven, volunteered at a food bank and discussed their day over tea. In the past few weeks, they have delivered meals to AIDS patients, gone apple picking, and attended a reading at a public library.

The Community Life Program is run by Chapel Haven, a non-profit agency that teaches people with cognitive disabilities how to lead independent lives. Founded in late summer, the program provides recreational, cultural and community service activities for clients whose conditions range from Down Syndrome to learning disabilities.

“Everyone here is between jobs, so this gives us something to do,” William Gilbert, one of 10 program participants, said. “We give back to the community instead of watching soaps all day long.”

Most activities revolve around community service. The clients regularly volunteer at the Connecticut Food Bank, where they package canned foods for delivery to soup kitchens, homeless shelters and other non-profit agencies. They spend every other Thursday raking leaves, weeding gardens and feeding birds at the Kellogg Environment Center in Derby.

“With disabled people, others usually volunteer for them. Now they’re volunteering for others,” said Christine Puleo, manager of communications and marketing at Chapel Haven.

The program also offers recreational excursions to museums, apple orchards and lectures at Yale and other universities. One participant, Audrey Briller, said she most enjoyed the “book sandwiches,” a series of talks by local authors about their work.

“There was one book sandwich where we learned about genes,” Briller said. “Like the difference between men and women.”

The participants recently heard an opera singer perform spirituals at a church in Hartford. Gilbert said he liked her performance so much that he asked for her autograph and took his picture with her.

Ray Gomes, the program’s assistant coordinator, said he has noticed an improvement in the participants’ social interactions and their mental and physical well-being. Equally important, he said clients are having fun.

“Before we leave here today [Thursday], they’re going to want to know what we’re doing tomorrow, even though there’s no program on Friday,” Gomes said.

In addition to recreational opportunities, participants receive a variety of support services designed to meet their financial, vocational and personal needs. Each individual is assigned a support coordinator, who helps him or her secure housing, find employment, manage bills, plan meals and maintain a network of friends.

The Community Life Program is open to anyone in the community, but all 10 participants graduated from Chapel Haven’s two-year residential special education school. An alternative to college for cognitively disabled students, the school offers life skills classes, recreational activities, and help with finding employment.

Puleo said ideally students get jobs after graduation, but that it is not always possible.

“We needed something to energize and occupy people who had graduated,” Puleo said. “We don’t want them to sit around and watch television.”

Puleo said the program has thus far met with considerable success.

“They’re learning new things, meeting new people,” she said. “They’re taking advantage of New Haven.”

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