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New social group unites special-needs teens and adults

At Leo’s Super Bowl in Amesbury, Zach Prescott lets a ball fly. At right, Stuart Linenfelser chats with Barbara Pouliot, the event’s organizer.

Photos by Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe

At Leo’s Super Bowl in Amesbury, Zach Prescott lets a ball fly. At right, Stuart Linenfelser chats with Barbara Pouliot, the event’s organizer.

Nathan Pouliot is a tall, soft-spoken 26-year-old — 27 in May, he’ll emphasize when you ask — with a genuine smile and a delicate handshake who likes the same things as most 20-somethings: music, movies, dancing, and, of course, pizza.

But because he has a developmental disorder, lives with his parents, and doesn’t work, he has next to nothing of a social life.

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It’s a common issue among those with disabilities, and earlier this year, his mother set out to change it.

The result is a dedicated, Amesbury-based social group for adults with special needs. The burgeoning group attracts a blend of ages and from high-functioning to autistic to its weekly gatherings.

But, as Barbara Pouliot stressed, “To me, they’re all ‘normal.’ We all need a normal social life.”

After creating a page on meetup.com, she organized the first event — food, music, and board games — for about a half-dozen who came on Jan. 7; membership has since grown to more than a dozen, with many coming from well beyond Amesbury to play games and bowl, watch movies, dance, pig out on junk food, and otherwise socialize. Attendees pay up to $15 per event to cover expenses.

On a recent bowling night, members began to filter in around 5:15, wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with “Amesbury Social Meetup,” greeting each other with waves and hugs.

“He comes home and he’s happy,” Debra Doucette of Newburyport said of her 16-year-old, Stuart Linenfelser, seated nearby. Although he’s involved with music therapy and Special Olympics, he can tend to get “isolated,” particularly in the summer, his mother said.

“This has huge potential, and it’s a good thing for these kids.”

“Mummy, I need help,” her son proclaimed as he struggled to loop the laces on a blue-and-black shoe.

“Try doing it one more time,” she encouraged. “Take a deep breath and just try it again. Go slow, ’cause I know you can do it.”

He scrunched his face into a pout, crossed his arms, and emphatically shook his head. “I can’t.”

Eventually, she obliged, but stressed, “I want him to learn, because as an adult, he’s going to have to do it.”

Around them, others also were lacing up their bowling shoes. A few requiring lots of help, others a little, some none. Soon, they settled into the game, assisted by volunteer Kelly Gallagher, 22, a University of Massachusetts Lowell student, and Janis Hibbins, a redhead with a big smile who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and is one of the group’s higher-functioning members.

Hibbins, 22, helps the others with “anything they need,” she said.

“I have a blast,” she said. “It’s nice to get out of the house.”

And before? “I really didn’t do anything” socially, she said.

As two rounds of bowling proceeded in adjacent lanes, some chucked the ball so it landed with a hard “thunk!” and knocked against bumpers; others rolled it gently, used two hands, positioned themselves halfway down the lane, or bucked the process by rolling out all the balls before the first one made it down to hit the pins.

Next up: Nathan Welch, 26, (who isn’t very talkative, but smiles a lot and shows excitement by rubbing his head and letting out a little screech). Gallagher guided him to position, handed him a ball, and encouraged with a smile and a nod: “Go ahead.”

He put it down at the very end of the lane and gave it the slightest nudge, so it barely rolled until reaching the end and knocking over one pin.

Linenfelser, meanwhile, settled into a catcher’s crouch, wound the ball back between his legs with both hands, then rocketed it down the lane.

The group was boisterous with conversation, laughter, and the cheering-on of every player, whether they hit none or all of the pins.

Pouliot, all the while, serves as a mother, mentor, and pal — she goes from helping tie shoes, to consoling tears, to chatting members up about school and work.

“We all just click,” she said with a shrug. “It’s fun, friendship. They’ve already bonded. They have fun, they look forward to it. So do I.”

“He looks forward to this so much,” Randy Welch of North Andover agreed of her son Jason.

He was born with Fragile X syndrome, a genetic intellectual disability that affects his speech and development. But that doesn’t stop him from having fun — he is described as “the dancing machine” on the group’s meetup.com site — and, like many other members, he spends his days at the Coastal Connections, an Amesbury center for those with varied disabilities.

“It just makes them feel part of something,” Randy Welch said. “Everybody deserves to have socialization and something to look forward to.”

“It gives us a break also,” she added with a laugh. “I take advantage of these few hours.”

Beyond the appreciation of both members and parents, the group also has received an infusion of support from the community.

Get-togethers alternate between Leo’s Super Bowl, which provides a discount on group bowling and free use of shoes, and The Barn Pub & Grille, which opens its upstairs on a night it’s usually closed. Meanwhile, the Stop & Shop in town donates a $25 gift card every month to buy snacks.

Movie nights have been held at Stage Two Cinema Pub, and Pouliot is planning some new events for the summer.

She’s a proud mother of two kids with special needs: Nathan, who she calls her “inspiration,” and Melissa, 13, who she adopted at age 10. She and her husband Paul also have two other grown children, and four grandchildren (with another on the way).

“You can’t imagine the joy,” she said proudly of Melissa as she prepared for the group on a recent Monday night at the bowling alley.

One of her daughter’s recent accomplishments is riding a bike without training wheels. “She’s blossomed,” her mother said.

“I wish other communities could start something like this,” she said. “It’s so much fun, I can’t tell you.”

Taryn Plumb can be reached at taryn.plumb@gmail.com.
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