In 1976, several families whose children with developmental disabilities were all in the same school class began planning weekend activities together. The kids had fun; their parents shared their experiences and emotions, and the events became an important part of those families' lives.
As the youngsters grew, their parents looked ahead. Soon their children would be adults. With the encouragement of Ted Hoskins -- the forward-looking minister at Saugatuck Congregational -- they gathered in the basement to plan.
In 1982, the organization -- named CLASP -- opened its first group home, on King's Highway in Westport.
Thirty years later, that one home has grown to a dozen -- along with nine supervised apartments -- here and in surrounding towns. Four are in Westport: the original house, plus others on Pine Drive, Sturges Highway and Weston Road.
A staff of 140 help over 80 adults with autism and related developmental disabilities live in these long-term, supported programs. Treated with dignity and respect, and offered full, personalized services, they enjoy living in a family environment, and participating fully in their communities. They go to movies, shop for groceries, swim at the beach and the Y. And they work.
Westporters often see one of the CLASP residents at Whole Foods. He's worked there forever. An avid Special Olympics swimmer, he eagerly talks about his athletic accomplishments and the soap operas he loves.
Another resident walks to work every day, at Westport Glass. He too has become an important piece of the life of this town. The independence he and other CLASP residents enjoy has made an enormous difference in their lives -- and their loved ones, too.
CLASP has also developed a Career & Community Options program, an alternative to traditional 9-to-5 jobs. A well-appointed Sense-It-Room offers services to people with sensory disorders.
One woman calls CLASP "guardian angels," for the help provided to her sister with Down syndrome. The woman calls every day, but lives her own life knowing her sister is well taken care of.
Another says that CLASP has transformed her son's life. From deportment to handling everyday responsibilities, he has grown tremendously. Her son feels secure and well taken care of, and smiles as he walks to town to handle his own banking and finances.
The website -- www.CLASPHomesofWestport.com -- describes several success stories. Christian and Geoff, for example, have been with CLASP since the beginning. The Kings Highway group home marked their first time away from family. After 13 years, Christian's dream of living on his own came true. Staff looked in on him from time to time -- but thanks to his CLASP experience, he is living a satisfying, independent life.
Geoff, meanwhile, learned to take public transportation, and manage his time. He now lives with a roommate, and revels in his own independence.
Westporters have been generous in their support of CLASP. Miggs Burroughs is a tireless donor of time and talent. Longtime volunteers like Betty Lou Cummings and Jo Fuchs Luscombe are there whenever they're needed. The Westport Inn and Earthplace have hosted Taste of Westport fundraisers. Eileen Fisher has provided fashions for an annual show (CLASP ladies serve as models).
In return, CLASP supports other community ventures. A group team entered the Blues, Views & BBQ cook-off (giving back to Bob LeRose, a generous supporter). CLASP enters a birdhouse in Project Return's fundraiser, and had a duck in the Sunrise Rotary's contest. They even sponsor a Little League team.
But despite all that, CLASP is a low-key organization. The name does not really describe what it is or does. Though the state contributes funds, it's never enough. CLASP has never been aggressive about raising money.
The 30th anniversary provides a perfect opportunity. Last month, CLASP had a birthday "luau" in the beautiful new space at Christ & Holy Trinity Church. Earlier, there was a western-themed dance at Norfield Congregational Church, and a spring dinner-dance at Chatham Manor in Norwalk.
The next big event is Wednesday, Oct. 10 at Fairfield Theatre Company's Stage One. Two hot young stand-up comedians will entertain.
Jon Fisch is "a prolific monologist with universal appeal." He appears regularly at the Gotham Comedy Club, and has opened for Jerry Seinfeld. Moody McCarthy's credits include Last Comic Standing, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Star Search, and opening for Wanda Sykes. Both Jon and Moody have appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman.
The show begins at 8 p.m., with complimentary hors d'oeuvres at 7. Tickets ($55 and $45) are available at www.fairfieldtheatre.org, or by calling 203-259-1036.