The Dinner Companions

Friendship is food for the soul at this community program.
Barbara Poole-Street was inspired by her son, Ethan Street, to start the Inclusive Recreation program. photo: Val Loh

The first sound a visitor hears when walking into an Inclusive Recreation weekly dinner gathering is laughter. Lots of it. Some people have Down syndrome. A few with cerebral palsy are confined to wheelchairs. Others are students attending Honolulu colleges or high schools. A few caregivers join the fun with representatives from Easter Seals Hawai’i. It is a social gathering like any other, with people sharing stories, hanging out, meeting new friends.

And that’s the point.

"It’s a dinner party for everyone. We’re doing this with them instead of for them," says Barbara Poole-Street, who started Inclusive Recreation (I-Rec) in 2001. "It’s not, ‘Oh, these poor little things.’ They’re incredibly interesting people. Sometimes you have to listen a little harder," but otherwise they are just like everyone else.

Poole-Street, an economics professor at Chaminade University, began the program for her 29-year-old son Ethan, who has Down syndrome. She won a grant, partnered with Easter Seals Hawai’i, and invited people 15 and older with developmental disabilities to attend any part of the twice-weekly program. Then she put the word out to college students.

On Friday afternoons, they gather somewhere on the Chaminade campus or in the surrounding community to bake cookies (which they take to a homeless shelter), tie dye T-shirts, create ceramics, play billiards or go bowling. Often a fellow Chaminade professor hosts the group and donates supplies. Every Thursday night, Poole-Street buys food and cooks a simple dinner in the MacRay Center at the Episcopal Church near the University of Hawai’i at Manoa campus. Everyone is welcome.

"I didn’t want to start an organization that would be an obligation … The crazy thing is we always have enough food," she laughs. "We always seem to have one serving left over. It works."

At first, Poole-Street envisioned setting up a permanent meeting location. But then Sept. 11 hit, and she didn’t feel she could ask for any more funds. "So we just decided to be gypsies." It was the best thing that could have happened. "It brings us to the people who want to participate. It gives us more flexibility." To defray basic costs, I-Rec asks that participants pay a $15 annual registration fee and contribute $2 for dinner.

Poole-Street recalls that when Ethan was young, he begged to watch Little League practice at a nearby park. When he came home he would play the theme song from Pinocchio repeatedly. One day he emerged from his room and said, "Mom, when am I going to be a real boy?"

Her mission began.

"He wants as normal a life as possible, and he knows what a normal life is," she says. It may take a little more effort for Ethan to express his thoughts, but he has something important to say. He has a job in the Chaminade cafeteria. At I-Rec gatherings, he’s in charge of setting up and putting away the chairs. And he takes out the trash (without prompting).

Two regulars in the group, Candace, 21, and Cody, 15, enthusiastically greet visitors before dinner. When asked what they like best about the assemblies, they chime, "Talking to people, making friends." And what do they think about Barbara Poole-Street, the woman who started it all? They smile and nod. "She’s Ethan’s mom. She’s a nice woman. She’s good to us. Everybody likes her."

The college students benefit, too. One of the volunteers now works with Ethan. "So many of our college kids didn’t even know about work in this field," says Poole-Street. "It opens their eyes to a whole line of opportunities." And more.

"I feel good when I make them laugh or teach them card games or help them with their ceramics," says 19-year-old Bei Ashley Almario, a regular volunteer at I-Rec.

When Pohai Minns first attended an I-Rec meeting, she was fulfilling a Chaminade psychology course requirement. The 19-year-old admits she "was kind of scared and didn’t know how to act."

The friendliness, trust and interesting conversations that ensued amazed her. "They’re really genuine and nice," she says. "I admire a lot of them. They hold jobs and do community service. At the time [she started attending I-Rec] I didn’t do any of what they do!"

"Sometimes," adds Poole-Street, "the kids with the disabilities are the teachers."

Easter Seals veteran Linda Guess says, "In the beginning, volunteers might be a little standoffish. But they soon realize that these people are no different from their friends," talking about the latest music, fashions and boyfriends and girlfriends.

On this particular Thursday night, Poole-Street cooks for about 15 people. Candace dances with excitement; it’s her turn to say the prayer of gratitude. Soon two tables are filled with conversation. "It’s a real simple, little, family dinner," Poole-Street observes. "It’s kind of surprising how meaningful it’s become."

Adds regular Beverly Robello, also with Easter Seals, "The atmosphere is so happy. The vibes are good, because everybody who comes wants to be here. It’s Thanksgiving every single week." Yet the objective is much simpler, says Poole-Street: "Our kids belong in the community."

Making a Difference is presented in partnership with Hawai’i Community Foundation, a statewide grant-making organization supported by generous individuals, families and businesses to benefit Hawai’i’s people.
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