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For JR, Celia ‘was the greatest gift ever made’

‘We want to have relationships just like everybody else’

JR Foley and Celia Walsh have fallen in love at Friendship Home.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

NORWELL — They are the very picture of a happy couple, smiling and comfortable, sitting next to each other here at Friendship Home as a pale November sun brightens colorful stained glass.

And they talk about their remarkable journeys that have led here, the place where they’ve found love.

Celia Walsh, 33, smiles as JR Foley, 32, charts the course they have taken to each other and to the happiness that comes with love and companionship — and with mutual devotion.

Here’s how it all started:

JR Foley was born in the spring of 1990 at South Shore Hospital.

“I was born and spent most of my childhood life in Tufts Floating Hospital in Boston,” Foley told me the other day.

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He has significant neurocognitive difficulties, which impair his memory, intellectual ability, and social skills.

“I just had so many complications and without the help of my mom, Karen, and my dad, Jimmy, I wouldn’t be the young man that I am right now. I’m just so grateful that despite the fact that I’ve had 33 or 35 surgeries, each time I’ve progressed through them.

“But here I am. I’m not saying woe is me. I’m very grateful.”

Celia Walsh, who grew up in Duxbury, knows the story. And she has one of her own.

“Hi, I’m Celia Walsh — a nice Irish girl,” she said. “I’m 33, a year and a day older than [JR]. I went through all Duxbury schools. I had the best paraprofessionals in the entire Duxbury school system.”

With professional assistance, she graduated from Duxbury High School.

“I graduated in ‘08 with a certificate of completion,” Celia, who has Asperger’s syndrome and is on the autism spectrum, told me. “I walked with my class which was really cool.”

A singular achievement. Another entry in a lifetime journal that is still growing, chronicling life’s mileposts.

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By the time JR had turned 22, he and his family were looking for programs that would enhance his life and further his educational journey.

“I was given a tour [here] during orientation in February 2012 and Celia was the one who actually gave me the tour,” he said.

Something clicked that day.

Celia remembers.

“I said to my mom that day, ‘He’s nice,’” she said. “But he probably has a girlfriend.”

But he didn’t.

One thing led to another — as it often does — and JR could not stop thinking about Celia.

“Very warm-hearted,” he said of her. “Very uplifting. Just the kindest young woman I’ve ever come across.”

The feeling was mutual.

“I said to my mom: There’s something special about this guy,” she recalled.

Something special? What was it?

“He’s kind. He’s funny,” she said. “He’s smart as anything. I thought: He must have a girlfriend.”

But he didn’t.

And so, JR and Celia began to get to know one another. Friendship became a building block for something more.

“We just built on a great friendship,” Celia said. “We go to camp every summer together down the Cape in Sandwich. So, we were down there that year when it was about 9,000 degrees the entire week. I don’t know about 9,000 but it was 100-and-something the entire week. So, I had to go home early.”

Under that summer sun, JR looked around. And wondered.

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“I asked one of our staff: Where did Celia go?” he recalled. “And I just felt so upset that this girl had to leave because she wasn’t feeling well.”

He would get another chance.

Each year there is a formal prom organized by the Prom Angels Foundation for individuals with developmental disabilities. It’s hosted by the Knights of Columbus and the Hanson-Rockland Rotary Club.

“I saw Celia with her head down and I remember so clearly,” JR told me. “I thought she wasn’t feeling well or something like that. So, I went over to her and I said, ‘Are you OK?’ and she said, ‘No.’

“And I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘I really wish I could go to Prom Angels but nobody will go with me. And I said, ‘You know what? Chin up. Head up. Why don’t I take you?’”

And that’s precisely what he did.

“So that just clicked right there,” he said.

Yes. A new friend. A special bond. A night to remember with pretty gowns and black bow ties and romantic music. It was April 2019.

Andrea Pyke, executive director of Friendship Home, whose mission is to enrich the lives of those with development disabilities, was running the Boston Marathon that year.

“It was on Andrea’s bucket list to run the Marathon,” Celia said. “So, while Andrea was running 26.2 miles, we were falling in love.”

“Yes,” JR agreed. “It was cold as anything that day. And as Andrea passed us, I just gently put my hand on Celia’s shoulder and said, ‘I have a question.’ And she said, ‘What is it?’ And I said, ‘Would you be my girlfriend?’ And she yelled out a big, ‘Yes!’ So, we hugged.”

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Celia won’t forget that moment. Or that hug.

She remembers calling her mom with the big news. “And I said to my mom, ‘Holy crap!’”

Well put.

A big day. Big news. A romantic milestone that is now marked with a silver Claddagh ring that Celia treasures as a token of their love.

They’ve been to see “The Lion King.” They’ve enjoyed the music of James Taylor at Tanglewood.

But mostly they’ve been enjoying each other’s company.

Celia lives in Pembroke. JR lives in a group home in Milton.

“But we go home [to our families] every weekend,” JR said. “Celia goes home with her dad. I go home with my mom or dad.”

They have a standing date every night at about 7:30 on FaceTime.

“I’ll check in on Celia,” he said. “She’ll check in on me.”

“Both of our parents are crazy about us,” Celia told me. “What’s mom’s joke? ‘Of course, you wind up dating the class president.’”

JR paused for a moment. And looked over at Celia.

“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said. “I said this one evening at our most recent gala that I will repeat again today: When God gave me the grace of a girlfriend, Celia was the greatest gift that God ever made. And that’s how I label Celia to anybody.”

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Celia smiled. She took JR’s hand in hers. And then added:

“He’s my Prince Charming.”

I asked if there is a larger message in the special bond they’ve formed.

“Yeah,” Celia said. “Some people don’t think people with disabilities like us want to have relationships. They think we’re just perfectly happy being by ourselves. But we want to have relationships just like everybody else.”

JR nodded.

“Right,” he said. “I always have a saying that nobody’s perfect. But piggybacking on what Celia has said and she’s absolutely, 100 percent correct: Everybody is entitled to have a girlfriend or a boyfriend despite what their disability is.

“And anybody can do anything if they really try and put their heart and soul into it. And that’s what Celia and I did for ourselves.”


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.