Felice Cuores provides fun for adults with disabilities

Lisa Johnston

On a recent Saturday night, the music was pulsing loudly through the cafeteria at St. Clare of Assisi School in Ellisville.

Among those manning the door at this party was Bill Lukas. His friend, Gerry Villaire, rushed up to him.

"We've hit 250. We're out," Villaire blurted with a panicked look in her eyes as she announced she was out of gifts for their visitors. "What should we do?"

For the organizers of "Felice Cuores Party Time," it was a good problem to have.

Since 2003, member councils of the Knights of Columbus and ladies auxiliares in West County have hosted these monthly parties for adults 18 and older with developmental disabilities. For a $5 cover charge, partygoers are treated to music by local DJ company Sounsational Inc., snacks and attendance prizes.

Felice Cuores, which means "happy heart" in Italian, has grown substantially since its humble beginnings. In its first year, the average attendance was about 80 participants. Since then, attendance has more than doubled and it has attracted people from all over the St. Louis and Metro East area. Last weekend's party — a Christmas-themed event, including a visit from Santa and a small Christmas gift — drew 246 guests.

Another milestone was celebrated last weekend — Felice Cuores' 10,000th visitor. The lucky honoree was Sarah Hartrich, whose smile stretched from ear to ear as she was bestowed with a framed proclamation and a Santa hat with the number 10,000 painted in gold on it.

The idea for the parties was born out of a desire to provide a social opportunities for adults with disabilities. It's something that parents of children with disabilities and social service providers often say becomes more difficult to find as they leave the school setting and enter into adulthood.

Gerry Villaire and her husband, Bob, saw that firsthand with their youngest son, Andy, 30, who was born with Down syndrome. Bob Villaire, a former district warden for the Knights of Columbus, passed away this summer from cancer. His funeral Mass was celebrated at the Villaires' home parish, St. Clare, and right next to the site where the parties take place every month.

"We've become pretty involved in the (disability) community," Bob Villaire told the Review in 2003. "For us, most of it is about integration — going to the movies, bowling."

Villaire said he wanted an event in which people with mental disabilities could get together and feel comfortable around one another.

"It's a dance that's for them and their peers. That's what this is all about," Villaire said.

To get the effort going, the district's councils and ladies' auxiliaries — Holy Infant in Ballwin, Ascension in Chesterfield, St. Alban Roe in Wildwood, Christ Prince of Peace in Manchester, Incarnate Word in Chesterfield and the Marian council at St. Joseph in Manchester — each contributed $100 in seed money and their time serving as chaperones. St. Clare, which re-established a Knights' council three years ago, has since joined the group. Then-pastor Father Richard Hanneke agreed to donate the cafeteria space at the school. The tradition continued when Msgr. Kevin Callahan became pastor in 2005.

Gerry Villaire said the effort "definitely" has gone beyond her wildest dreams. "And it gets wilder every time," she added with a laugh. "My husband had a dream ... I know he's up in heaven looking down on us." She called the continuation of the parties a tribute to his memory.

Those who come to the parties, said Villaire, "all need friends, just like we do. If everybody was like our clients out there — our guests — there would be no war. They don't have have any prejudices. They may have jealousies every once in a while ... But they just go out there and have a good time. That's what we wanted to do. And we accomplished that."

John Lipka of Sounsational has been providing his DJ services since the parties began. For years, he's provided his services to groups that work with individuals with disabilities.

"We try to teach these guys how to come out and socialize and have a good time," said Lipka. "They get to come out and enjoy themselves just like anybody would. And lot of these adults who are disabled, they're with their parents 24-7. There's three hours once a month that these adults get to drop these guys with us, and they get to go enjoy themselves."

Lipka has also taken under his wing a Felice Cuores participant, Jeff Krausel, who now helps spin the tunes every month.

"I love to play music. It's awesome," Krausel said. What does he likes best about the experience? "Seeing all the people out there having a good time."

Villaire said she hopes the idea will spread to other parts of the St. Louis area.

Msgr. Callahan, who said he tries to stop by every month, said "the love in the room is so thick ... There's no inhibitions. They're just having a great time and singing and dancing. Every month it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. We're just proud that they use our place. It's a great ministry."

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