There were two things Stephanie Volpe was certain of when she co-created Friends Chat: a Zoom hangout for people with disabilities.
"One, everyone would be included," said Volpe, of Holbrook. "And Two, it is always free."
Before the pandemic, Volpe’s son Chris, 20, used to hang out at the Dew Drop Inn in Patchogue. The organization held weekly events including Zumba sessions and puzzle nights, focusing on people with disabilities. There, Volpe and her son met Eileen Viola and her daughter, Jessie, who is 24. They’ve all been friends for about five years, Volpe said.
When the Dew Drop Inn closed during the pandemic, Volpe and Viola wanted to make sure their children could still socialize.
"Our kids were missing each other," Viola said.
Volpe said Chris usually loves to sleep and have time off from school, but about a month into the shutdown this spring, "he started crying. He was losing his routine and not seeing his friends."
So together, the mothers started Friends Chat. It started with about five or six participants, Viola said. At its peak, there were 50 people on Zoom, said Volpe, adding that "word-of-mouth spread like crazy."
Now, they have a group of 20 people who consistently log on, ranging in age from teens to adults in their 30s. The content of the sessions are appropriate for all ages, Volpe said.
They have been hosting Friends Chat almost every night at 7:30 since the pandemic began. Volpe and Viola trade off on hosting the sessions. Although the participants are mostly from the metropolitan area, Volpe said they’ve gotten guests from all over the country — people tune in from Missouri, Washington and California.
There’s also a Facebook group where Viola and Volpe post updates on what’s in store each night.
Every Zoom has a theme and an activity for the participants to do together, organized by Volpe and Viola. There are paint nights, where everyone watches an instructional video and creates the same design, Bingo nights, talent shows, and dance parties. Recently, the participants traced their hands on sheets of paper and colored and drew around them to make them look like turkeys for Thanksgiving.
There are also regulars who lend their services to Friends Chat every week, free of charge.
A DJ from Caffeine Academy, a music school in West Babylon, leads the sessions every Monday, hosting such games as Freeze Dance and Name That Tune. A teacher from the Music Academy for Special Learners in Hauppauge joins the party on Wednesdays to sing and play the piano.
"This is such a corny word, but they’re do-gooders," Volpe said. "Everybody just assembled for this."
Viola said other parents of children with disabilities are happy to be falling back into a routine, even somewhat, with the regular Zoom sessions. She said one parent told her she was thrilled one night to overhear her son laughing from the next room.
Sometimes Viola will notice people logged on and sitting in the Zoom waiting room 20 minutes before a session is supposed to begin.
"It gets kids out of their shell and gives them something to look forward to," she said.
Camille Barone, of Patchogue, said her daughter Elizabeth, 34, has been joining Friends Chat nearly every night since it started. Elizabeth is studying American Sign Language at Suffolk County Community College.
For the Friends Chat talent shows, she’s performed "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" from "The Wizard of Oz" and "How Far I’ll Go" from Disney's "Moana" in sign language. Elizabeth said her favorite activities are when the group plays Hangman or paints together.
"I feel that our kids need to see each other, even if it’s just on Zoom," her mother said.
Barone said she knows that organizing these sessions takes "a lot of work" for Volpe and Viola. "I want them to know they are very appreciated," she said. "I applaud these ladies."
Volpe hopes that when it’s deemed safe, she can host a party for the Friends Chat gang so that everyone can meet in person. But she and Viola agree that even by that time, the Zoom hangouts won’t be over.
"Because we saw how big this got and how many friends were made, we can never stop this," Volpe said. "It’s always going to exist on some level, and it’s definitely going to continue on, past this pandemic."
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