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Effort aims for understanding of those with disabilities

Plum Advance Leader - 10/27/2017

George O’Donnell’s eyes light up when he talks about his son, Georgie.

Georgie, 33, has cerebral palsy — a neurological disorder that affects body movement and muscle coordination.

“My son has had two heart attacks, he’s had at least five hundred seizures, he’s deaf in one ear and he’s legally blind,” O’Donnell said. “But I wouldn’t trade him for another kid any day of the week.”

In 1995 — when his son was only 11 — O’Donnell started Friends to Friends, a program for children with and without disabilities.

The Murrysville man started by taking six kids bowling. His latest outing last month had at least 60 bowlers crowding eight lanes, and year-round his organization actively supports 285 people knocking down pins each month.

“I saw the need to bring the public together — those without disabilities and our kids — to show how much each child has to give,” O’Donnell said. “By bringing them together, they’ve learned so much and helped others so much more because of it.”

Every other Saturday from 3 to 5 p.m., O’Donnell, who is known to most as Big George, reserves lanes at Nesbit’s Lanes in Plum and quickly fills them with program participants. It’s free and includes kids and their families from Allegheny, Butler, Fayette and Westmoreland counties.

O’Donnell simultaneously runs a bowling event in Brookville, Jefferson County, with at least 100 participants. He has a friend in the area who helps to run events there.

The program’s slogan — integration, diversity and fun through sports — highlights what O’Donnell’s goal has been for more than two decades.

“I not only want to bring together these kids, but my goal is for the public to receive our children when they see them out there every day,” O’Donnell said. “Not to stare, but to come up to them, say hello and ask them how they are doing.”

Plum resident Denise Carpon and her daughter, Jessica, have been coming since its inaugural year. Jessica, 33, who has Down syndrome, grew up with Georgie and looks forward to seeing him and everyone else twice a month.

“Bowling is something that anyone else would do, and we’re providing that opportunity to our kids to get them out as much as possible and to do as much as any other child would do,” Denise Carpon said.

For Carpon, the program benefits more than those with disabilities.

“It’s a way for the parents to talk and to have a reason to get back together again,” she said.

With several activities sponsored throughout the year, including Kennywood trips and professional sporting events, O’Donnell said the program needs at least $15,000 annually to operate. The Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation donates $5,000 every February, but many times, there’s just not enough money in the bank.

But that doesn’t stop Big George.

“I take loans out all the time for this,” O’Donnell said. “At one point we lost all of our funding, so I went to the bank, got a loan and paid it back myself.”

Christine Manganas is a freelance writer.


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