A place where all belong
The dance floor lit up and a disco ball began to spin as zumba instructor Jessica Berry led a warm-up before class. Fourteen-year-old Teddy Goldman raised his arms above his head, stretching and rolling his shoulders before beginning to find his groove. “He doesn’t speak much,” his mom, Jean Goldman, warned. The big smile on his face said enough.
His brother Benson, who is typical, danced next to him, supporting his sibling. The Manhattan residents were spending their spring break at their East End home, but are no strangers to Patchogue.
“[Teddy] goes to Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck and they referred us here,” Goldman said. The ‘here’ she was referring to is the Dew Drop Inn, a social gathering place for young adults with special needs in Patchogue. “I’ve never seen a place like this before, a hangout spot for autistic and other special-needs kids,” she said. “It’s a good energy here,” she added, since she gets to meet other parents and Teddy gets to socialize with other peers.
Bob and Barbara Mongillo have been running the Dew Drop Inn since November 2016. The space, at 100 Austin Street in Patchogue, is just south of Sunrise Highway and blends in with the other offices in the complex.
The name sounds inviting enough to wander inside, where it’s completely unique.
Stocked with video games, board games, puzzles, a kitchen and dance floor, the space was formerly home to Allison’s Gathering Place, which hosted weekly special-needs gatherings that the Mongillo’s 16-year-old son, Joseph, had enjoyed attending. “He lived for it,” Bob Mongillo recalled, and soon he started volunteering as a parent.
It was a cause important enough for him to get involved with, as Joseph is one of their 24 children. Six are biological, and the other 18 are all adopted, special-needs children who range in age from 6 to 17.
In October, the Mongillos got word that Allison’s Gathering Place would not be able to operate any longer. Bob, a deacon at St. Francis de Sales R.C. Church in Patchogue, and Barbara, a registered nurse, knew they had to act. “We knew we couldn’t let this go,” Bob Mongillo said. “There’s nothing out there for this population of young people, especially into their 20s and 30s,” he added. “Since November, it’s been growing and growing and growing.”
So much so that when their tenant next door left, their landlord offered them the space next door, which would effectively double their size. Most recently home to a spirituality center, the new 1,000-square-foot space will allow Bob to keep dreaming bigger. Since taking the reins in November, the couple has expanded the program to include programming four nights a week.
Monday is always zumba night for anyone 5 years and older. On Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m., the Dew Drop Inn hosts pizza, puzzles, plus for the same age group. Friday nights are split up: the first and third Friday of each month is for 9-to-13-year-olds and the second and fourth Fridays are open to group homes to come and socialize with one another. Every Saturday night, dancing and karaoke is held for all abilities ages 14 and up. They currently charge $20 on Saturday nights and $15 during the week, in order to keep the lights on and operating. Ultimately, Bob hopes that he will be able to offer the program to the community at no charge. “That’s what we’re working toward, and if you know Barbara and I, you know we won’t give up until that happens,” he said.
The new next-door space features several private rooms, which Bob envisions as sensory rooms for younger kids or quiet spaces for anyone who needs a break from the crowd. He also plans to knock down two points of the wall to expand the dance floor and keep the dining area separate from the action and create an area for parents who stay as well.
“This is near and dear to us,” he said, moments before his daughter Amanda dropped off granddaughter Madison, who was born with Down syndrome. “I’m a deacon, and I always say that God has a sense of humor,” he said of the irony. “It didn’t matter — we love her just the same.”
Taking on the Dew Drop Inn was a crossroads for the family, but they haven’t looked back. “We felt really strongly and didn’t want to let these young people down,” he said.
The experience has shown Mongillo how great the need is for spaces like this. “Everyone has their day program, but they need a place to be themselves, to socially interact with others not in the same group they are with all week,” he explained.
Joseph brought his best friend, Chris, who was at first hesitant to take to the dance floor. It only took a little bit of persuasion from Joseph before the two of them joined zumba. “We all need somewhere to go and socialize and fit in,” said Tyler Brown, who works as a one-on-one aide for Chris.
“They always find their way,” Barbara Mongillo said, reflecting on the journey. “Everyone deserves acceptance.” The high-school sweethearts will be celebrating their 37th anniversary in June. “I knew I had a good one back then,” she said laughing. She noted that they think alike, which has helped them avoid any big disagreements over the years. The Dew Drop Inn, Barbara explained, is like the symbol for autism: a puzzle. “Everyone’s unique. We are all the pieces.”
Many people don’t fully understand unless they have been exposed to someone with special needs, but Barbara noted that all they want is to have a bit of fun — something all of us share. “They are loved here,” she said. “We’re really all one extended family.”
For more information on the Dew Drop Inn, visit www.dewdropinnsn.org or call 516-359-6332.
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