‘Pursue your dreams’

Vraj Desai celebrates with the help of physical therapist Glenn Stackhouse and teaching assistant Holly Staul.

After 47 years in the packaging and display industry, Larry Thornton was wondering how he would fill up his days when he retired in 2008. He no longer has such worries. After moving to Peapack-Gladstone, NJ, in 2011, he discovered Matheny and started volunteering one day a week in a Matheny School science class. He now volunteers three days a week and serves on Matheny’s Board of Trustees and its Community Advisory committee.

For these reasons, there was no more appropriate keynote speaker for The Matheny School’s graduation ceremony June 12. Thornton’s affection for Matheny and its students was evident. Volunteering in the school, he said, “is inspiring to me.” As he relived his first tour of Matheny through a symbolic tour he gave the graduating students, he urged the graduates to “work hard and pursue your dreams. Never give up.”  Matheny, he added, “is an exceptional school and a model for the state and the nation.”

Sean Murphy, Matheny School principal, said the graduation ceremony “celebrates the achievements of the entire Matheny community. Their dreams and the dreams of their parents are our goal.” Other speakers included Chris King, Matheny vice president of operations; Daniel McLaughlin, chair of the Matheny Board of Trustees; Thomas Belding, president of the Matheny School Board; and William Horton, mayor of Peapack-Gladstone. The graduates were Catherine Aragona, Christopher Asbell, Bruno Correia, Vraj Desai, Mark O’Connell, Tasha Santiago-O’Keefe and Aaron Turovlin.

Larry Thornton congratulates Ana Correia and her son Bruno.

Becoming part of the Matheny family

Larry Thornton helps out at a Matheny Hoops for Heart fundraiser for the American Heart Association.

By Larry Thornton

At first, I started volunteering at Matheny one day a week. During this time, I focused on learning each of the students’ names and getting an understanding of their medical conditions. Additionally, this gave me an opportunity to establish a working rapport with the administrators, teachers and staff who make this incredible facility possible. As time went on, my assistance was utilized beyond the classroom, which provided me with a greater knowledge of the medical center and school and increased my desire to help.

My many experiences at Matheny—including a pep rally, a student talent show and a graduation ceremony, as well as my time in the classroom—provided me with a greater understanding of the myriad services and opportunities available to Matheny’s children. As I sat in the beautiful arts center, I remembered reading one of the articles in a newsletter about the facility. The headline said: “The Therapists and Caregivers at Matheny View the Students as Capable Children with No Predetermined Limits on their Achievements.” This article was based on the comments of a Matheny parent, Julie Gordon, and highlighted The Matheny School’s conviction that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to learning. The events I witnessed truly exemplify the wisdom of Julie’s message.

By the end of June, I was volunteering three days a week and, for the first time, I was filling my retirement void. As I volunteer at this amazing place, what strikes me most is  the school’s goal to enhance the emerging skills of each student. This is achieved through the loving care provided by the devoted staff in a creative, upbeat and positive environment. I can truly say that miracles happen every day at Matheny.

(Second of two articles)

Discovering Matheny

Larry Thornton and Matheny teacher Margaret “Peggy” Zappulla.

By Larry Thornton

I retired in December 2008 after 47 years in the packaging and display industry. When retirement approached, I had no idea what it would mean for me. There was travel, golf, gardening and the luxury of reading many books. However, the transition from working daily to a life of leisure was not easy.

After moving to Peapack-Gladstone in December 2011, I familiarized myself with this picturesque rural town and, with the help of the town library, learned of the world-renowned medical and educational center located in the heart of town. Upon discovering Matheny, I set up an appointment with Gail Cunningham and David Curcio, who run Matheny’s volunteer services program. Gail and David graciously met with me for more than an hour and provided me with an extensive tour of the beautiful facilities that are perched on one of the highest elevations in Somerset County. As I left Matheny that Friday morning, my first thoughts reflected amazement. The citizens of New Jersey, and especially Peapack-Gladstone, should be proud to have such an incredible medical and educational facility for children and adults with medically complex developmental disabilities. Matheny has been a part of the fabric of our community since 1954.

I started volunteering at Matheny in March 2013.  Sean P. Murphy, principal of The Matheny School, kindly gauged my interest in science and introduced me to Margaret Zappulla, one of Matheny’s teachers. I knew from the first day that a completely new challenge confronted me, as this environment was so different from what I did each day during the 47 years of my career. I was in a quandary as to how I would be able to contribute and help these young adults who could not communicate or verbalize.  By the second day, my perception changed. I looked beneath the surface and saw a whole new and exciting world. I took time to reflect on how it would be for me not to be able to express myself or to walk. How does one deal with these conditions without feeling frustration? Therein lay the problem for most of these students and residents, who have so much to say and yet face ongoing obstacles to communication.

(First of two articles)

Sharing his knowledge

Larry Thornton, helping out on a science project with, from left, student Tasha Santiago-O’Keefe; teaching assistant Kim White; and teacher Peggy Zappulla.

Larry Thornton started out volunteering one day a week in a classroom at The Matheny School. That one day has turned into three. The retired paper manufacturing executive lives in nearby Gladstone, and says, “Obviously, I enjoy this immensely. Coming here has been a real eye-opener for me to see this marvelous institution and what the staff members do to make the lives of these children as normal as possible.”

In addition to his classroom duties, Thornton had volunteered at Miles for Matheny, is a former member of the Board of Trustees at the now defunct McAuley School in North Plainfield, NJ and is a past Grand Knight at the Knights of Columbus Council of Blessed Sacrament Church in Martinsville. The KOC Council recently donated $720 to Matheny. Earlier this spring, Thornton helped out at Matheny’s “March Madness” event to raise money for the American Heart Association. During the event, our front parking lot was closed off and transformed into several adapted basketball courts.

Since the majority of Matheny students and patients are full-time residents, volunteers such as Larry Thornton are needed days, evenings and weekends. Individuals can serve as classroom aides, recreation assistants, tutors or just friendly visitors. For more information, call (908) 234-0011, ext. 282; or email volunteers@matheny.org.

Thornton at Hoops for Hearts with student Yasin Reddick.