Abby Constance is a single mother to her son, Ben, 11. “My father was a Knight,” the Middletown resident said. “I learned about this fishing trip at Mass, and will join this [support] group in the fall. It’s hard to get out because we are always back and forth to CHOP [Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia].” Christina Leslie photos

Abby Constance is a single mother to her son, Ben, 11. “My father was a Knight,” the Middletown resident said. “I learned about this fishing trip at Mass, and will join this [support] group in the fall. It’s hard to get out because we are always back and forth to CHOP [Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia].” Christina Leslie photos

By Christina Leslie | Correspondent

The day dawned sunny with a light breeze, perfect weather for the age-old battle between man and fish. Young anglers, gripping their rods and reels tightly, strode or wheeled eagerly down the wooden pier in Bayshore Waterfront Park, Port Monmouth, with Knights of Columbus and family members following closely behind, offering encouragement.

Ninety minutes later, the battle concluded with bait exhausted, warriors hungry, and not a single snapper or fluke coaxed onto the nylon lines. Yet, all agreed, the outing was a rousing success.

The annual fishing tournament held Aug. 18, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus Vincent T. Lombardi Council 6552 of Middletown, served as the final meeting of the season for the Knights’ new Special Needs Support Group. The group, created in February and spearheaded by Knight John W. Brandon, was designed in response to the great need expressed by area families to share knowledge and amass resources during their ongoing effort to advocate for those with special needs.

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“This is an activity where they can be social,” said Bob Drach, a member of the Knights’ Lombardi council. “A lot of [the developmentally challenged] might be confined to the house most of the time. An experience like this is wonderful.”

Brandon is eager to begin another season of the Special Needs Support Group this fall. The first meeting is slated for 7 p.m. Sept. 26 in St. Mary Grammar School, 538 Church St., Middletown. Guest speakers will include a representative from the Monmouth County Sheriff’s Department, who will discuss protections available for families with special needs individuals in emergency situations; Lana Strem, who will share methods parents might use to ease stress, and Nancy Rubinson, a representative from the Diocese of Trenton’s Monmouth County Holy Innocents Society, which has been supported by the Knights of Columbus Vincent T. Lombardi Council since 1974.

No matter the quality of the legal or governmental help available, Brandon said, parents are the first and best resources for their children.

“This group has no voice,” he said. “We are giving them a voice. [Parents] are not by themselves here. There are people that have the same situation.”

Advocacy Efforts

During the fishing event, Knights and fishing club members worked patiently with the novice fishermen, baiting hooks, demonstrating line casting and reminding them to watch for bobbling lures. Waves gently lapped the shore as excited shrieks rang out from the youngsters when they saw fish just below the surface or gulls swooping to capture the bait on the rail.

Brandon explained the roots of the group came from his advocacy for his developmentally challenged son, Christopher. He and his wife, Janice, adopted the one-day-old infant despite the doctors’ discouraging litany of the problems he would face.

“They told us he had 47 things wrong with him: his hearing, his sight, his feet were faced the wrong way, and he was autistic,” Brandon said. “He might never be able to achieve anything past the mental age of six months old. But, it was all well worth it. He is 32 years old, and we are very proud of him.”

Brandon, who is president of the Knights’ Trenton Diocese Federation and speaks on behalf of the fraternal organization at the annual Trenton Rally for Life, had amassed and shared a wealth of knowledge over the years as he advocated for his son, and realized a support group would be valuable to others.

Since its inception, the support group has hosted a variety of experts in the field of legal and social assistance to the special needs population, such as lawyers who advocate for housing and educational rights; members of the Monmouth County Sheriff’s Department who educate on programs for the safety of the autistic, and Paul Aronsohn, head of the newly created N.J. Office of the Ombudsman for Individuals with Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities and their Families.

The families have also enjoyed a number of social outings as a group, including bowling, softball, a New Year’s Eve party at the Harbor School for special needs children in Eatontown, and the fishing tournament.

“We want to make sure the kids have a good time,” Brandon said.

Common Ground

Indeed, those of all ages said they enjoyed the fishing expedition. Jodi Frunzi and her husband are parents to 18-year-old Michael. Frunzi said outings such as this help give her son hobbies to explore.

“It’s hard to figure out what he’d do or like,” she said, adding that the group is a boost to her and her husband, too.

“This is great for the emotional support, to know we are not alone, for none of our family live nearby. Seeing the success stories help us manage the challenges we face as [the kids] get older,” said Frunzi, who worships in St. Mary Parish, Middletown, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help-St. Agnes Parish, Atlantic Highlands.

Jon Pulawski, a member of the council for two years, reflected the event was a good  opportunity for the families “to get away from everyone else and relax. This is my chance to give back to the community,” he continued. “That’s what the Knights do.”

Added Lou DiBello, “We can give back to the community and our Church. On the ride home, I feel better than the kids do.”

Brandon repeated a maxim he used at the group’s first meeting, one that took on a new emphasis as dozens fished from the pier.

“We’re all in the same boat. Some of us are in the back of the boat, some of us are in the front, some of us are in the middle,” he said. “We all have to row together.”

For more information on the group, contact Brandon at jnjbrandon@verizon.net or 732-787-0236.