It’s the time of year where graduation parties, celebrations, ceremonies, and commencements reach a ubiquitous level. For those few weeks in June, families, friends, and relatives descend upon schools and colleges to celebrate graduates. Speeches are made, and thank yous are handed out. Parents, friends, grandparents, teachers, coaches, the list is fairly typical for each student who is ready to leave Darien.
But for Tommy Pelletier, the support structure goes beyond teachers and family. Tommy is visually impaired, in addition to being on the autism spectrum. On Friday June 16, at age 21, Tommy graduated from the Perkins School for the Blind, just outside Boston, and is ready to move on to a college program in Florida. In the education of a student like Tommy, the expression, “it takes a village” has never been more appropriate. And so, on June 17th at the Darien Nature Center, Tommy and family set out to celebrate the village, and over 120 guests came to offer their well wishes. The event was put on by Madalene d’Etiveaud of Bash Events.
Jane Pelletier, Tommy’s mother, said the event was, “really kind of a thank you to Darien and thank you to the community.”
“It’s about saying thank you for a life in this community that has embraced him and his differences,” Jane said.
Tommy attended attend the Darien public schools until high school, attending Holmes and Middlesex. After that, the focus became on skills to help him become more independent and functional when school ended. Tommy, of course, developed a large circle of friends, some of whom went on to college in the Boston area and stayed in touch with Tommy while he was at Perkins.
The party itself was held at the Darien Nature Center, which proved to be quite an impressive venue. The evening was international themed, as Tommy is a fan of foods from all over the world. Food trucks were parked, and passed food including meatballs and pizza from Italy and tacos from Mexico was enjoyed by all. There was also a Mediterranean themed food table, and a sushi bar set up inside, making rolls to order. The outdoor bar offered beers from all over the world as well, and servers wore handkerchiefs with tiled flags to be on theme. Of course, Tommy was on theme as well, with a flag covered tie. Guests were able to move from the bar to the dance floor, to inside to the sushi bar, and even able to move through the nature center and see some of the animals.
Guests wore name tags that also explained their relationship to Tommy and the family, and so to look around the room and read tags was it’s own small trip through Tommy’s life. A TV hung on the wall with a slideshow of photos of Tommy as a child playing the drums or with his family.
Tommy’s nanny from his younger days, Jenna Rotner, said, “this night is really special. This is Tommy’s village.”
Jane would welcome everyone with a brief speech, and as she worked through the crowd, the feeling of the enormity of Tommy’s village washed over everyone. Jane thanked his teachers, including a number from Hindley and Middlesex who had made the trip. Eileen Kinahan, Tommy’s second grade teacher, was one who was mentioned specifically.
“Eileen built such an environment of acceptance. It was in that classroom he developed that true circle of friends,” Jane said. Jane would also thank Nancy Schwartz, SLP/ Director of Communication Clinic of Connecticut, and Betsy Caridi, Tommy’s teacher for the visually impaired. “Nancy has worked with Tommy since he was four. She is just brilliant, and she takes on any challenge,” Jane said, adding, “Thanks for helping to mold this beautiful, social young man.” Jane thanked Caridi for opening up the world of academics to Tommy by teaching him Braille, saying, “Tommy is going to college because he was opened up to academics. Thank you.”
Kinahan and Caridi both recalled a special moment in second grade. Tommy took part in a contest where students read braille words as quickly as they could. Tommy wound up winning the contest, somewhat to the surprise of his teachers and friends. Kinahan recalled t-shirts being made and an ice cream party being thrown to celebrate Tommy’s success, in the same spirit as the graduation party. A victory for Tommy is a victory for everyone who had helped him reached that point.
Others thanked were Tommy’s aunts, uncles, nieces, and of course his brother Robbie. “Robbie is the most selfless brother you have ever meet,” said Jane.
Tommy’s advocate, Noreen O’Mahoney, was also present, and received warm praise from Jane. “Noreen attended every meeting as my right hand woman for 20 years. She helps me think through every single meeting and decision. We could not have done this without you,” said Jane. O’Mahoney works for the advocacy firm Collaborative Advocacy Associates
“I just really want to thank everyone here for the love, support, and caring. We could never have come this far without all of you. I see Tommy’s life right in front of me,” Jane said, becoming emotional as she looked around the room.
Tommy’s one to one aide, Jacob Augenstern, made the trip all the way from Boston for the event. “Tom’s a magnetic guy. I’m not at all surprised all these people have come for him. He’s a really special person,” said Augustern. Augenstern spoke about Tommy’s incredible sense of humor and his love of music as well, which of course was on theme for the night. More than that, Augunstern was proud of the next step in Tommy’s life. “It would have been easy for him to stay in Connecticut, he got into a program in Connecticut, but he’s going to Florida. He’s striking out on his own adventure,” said Augunstern.
Shirley Klein, the district Assistant Superintendent in charge of Special Education and Student Services, was on hand as well, as was Scott McCarthy, the Program Director of Special Education and Student Services for Darien. “What a wonderful night. Tommy is such a special young man, I’m so happy I was able to be here,” said Klein.
Jane had strong praise for the Darien school system as well, as she thanked teachers and administrators. “Be so proud of your school system,” Jane said, “We went through our challenges but these folks are doing the right things and building programs.”
The next step for Tommy is, indeed, Florida starting on August 1st. Tommy was accepted into College Internship Program, which will allow him to work part time and attend classes at Eastern Florida State part time. CIP has five campuses across the country, Tommy’s is the Brevard Florida campus.. On Saturday, however, this felt miles away. When the speeches ended, and the thank you’s were done, Tommy really got the party started. He made his way to the DJ booth, put some headphones on, and starting spinning a playlist that he came up with for the night. As Tommy took over in the booth, dozens of conversations in the room were all about the same thing: the achievement that was being celebrated. Some conversations were about a second grader, some a middle schooler, some a recently graduated high school. But the whole village had turned out to celebrate the man they brought up, and the Pelletier family was full of gratitude for being a part of it.