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At home for disabled, friends' bond lasts 70 years

By Chris Gardner
Republican-American / December 18, 2011
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SOUTHBURY, Conn.—The late morning sun was pouring through the window of the TV room at Southbury Training School when Belton "Sunshine" Antrum and Donald Gibson plunked down next to each other on a plush green couch.

It was Thursday, and the pleasant aroma of turkey soup wafting from down the hall was but one clue that lunch was about to be served.

Antrum, 85, and Gibson, 88, don't often eat their noontime meal at home during the week.

The bus comes early to pick up these two men, best friends since they were teenagers.

It whisks them off to Waterbury so they can get in some exercise, take a trip to the mall, go on a picnic or meet up with friends.

Never, however, does one man go without the other.

It has been that way for 70 years, according to the men's caregivers at the training school, the state-run institution for developmentally disabled adults.

The unusually strong bond formed by the two men delights and confounds the workers at Cottage 36, where the men share a home with 14 other elderly residents.

Antrum, whom everyone calls "Sunshine" -- perhaps because his smile lights up a room -- cannot speak, but he communicates with his best friend by smiling, touching and making other hand and facial gestures that Gibson has learned over seven decades to interpret.

If Gibson heads toward the lunchroom, Antrum is always in tow.

If Gibson needs help putting on his coat, Antrum gives him a hand.

That's what best friends do.

"It's a case where they're always looking out for each other," said Paul Miller, a supervisory developmental services worker who has worked with the two men for the better part of two decades. "I've seen cases where residents befriend other residents, but never a bond like this."

Miller said there have been times when one man got sick and had to be hospitalized, or one went on an outing without the other.

When that happens, the one who stays behind goes to the door and positions himself by the window until the other returns, Miller said.

Fortunately, the wait is usually not too long, and the staff makes sure the men are together from sunup to sundown to keep one from missing the other.

Records from the time of the men's admission to the training school in 1941 don't say why they became such close friends, but Miller has his theories.

The training school in Southbury opened in 1940 as a Works Progress Administration project when states were rushing to build institutions for developmentally disabled people.

It was considered a model of client care, a place where families from across the country moved their sons and daughters.

Its population peaked at about 2,300 people in 1969. Now, about 425 people live there. Admissions are closed by court order.

Antrum grew up in the south. The staff isn't quite sure where, but they think it was Georgia or South Carolina. A photo Antrum keeps in the bedroom he shares with Gibson and another roommate shows him as a young boy playing in a cotton field.

Gibson, a Connecticut native, was 18 when he was admitted; Antrum was 15. The world was at war, and the two teens were sent to a new home where, out of necessity, they had to make friends.

"They were among the first residents of the training school. They were in their teens. It was World War II. Maybe they just latched onto each other," Miller said. "The word had it that they were Siamese twins all along the way."

Siamese twins don't easily separate, so the staff never tried.

The relationship has brought the men's families together. Gibson has a younger sister who lives in Terryville, and Antrum's niece is a frequent visitor. Families always include the other man in community trips, celebrations and gift-giving.

"They treat them as equals," Miller said. "It's brought the families close to each other."

Antrum and Gibson have always lived in the same cottage, and have been roommates for as long as anyone can remember.

Their day starts at 7. Breakfast is served at 7:45, and then the men -- who despite their advanced age are independently mobile -- are free to move about their cottage or visit with other residents until their bus comes at 9.

"It becomes a watch for the bus," Miller said. "They love it here, but they love their work. They're active."

The men participate in a community "work" program in Waterbury designed for people of retirement age.

They exercise, go on walks and picnics, visit the mall and enjoy each other's company. At 3, the bus brings them home.

"Then it's rest time," Miller said. The men snack, take their medication, watch a little TV and sometimes nap before dinner at 5.

Antrum likes to watch movies on his DVD player or on the big screen in the TV room. He prefers watching anything with animals -- the cottage has pet birds and crabs.

Gibson is less interested in the TV. "He's more social," Miller said. "He likes to go around and see what everyone is doing."

He also likes to read by thumbing through magazines and books. Both men enjoy music and dancing -- Miller said he has a great photo of Antrum cutting it up on the dance floor -- and are happy to go out to dinner or to an outdoor concert at the Gatehouse near the training school's entrance.

Neither man likes to swim, although both enjoy walking on the beach at Camp Harkness, a summer camp for people with disabilities in Waterford. The men go to the camp for three or four days in the summer. Picnics are a favorite activity.

"Donald, do you love picnics?" Miller asked.

"Oh boy," Gibson replied.

The two men had been sitting on the couch in the TV room for about 30 minutes.

During that time, Antrum, who wore a red and white Santa's cap, plaid shirt and new white sneakers, positioned himself up against Gibson, his eyes darting around the room. Gibson didn't seem to mind the contact.

When Miller asked if he'd like to show a visitor his bedroom, Antrum -- with a little help from his caregiver -- stood up and slowly walked out of the room and down the hall.

Gibson, in a green sweater vest, brown pants and black sneakers, followed close behind.

When it was time for lunch, Gibson took the lead down the hall, and Antrum followed.

That's the routine. One follows the other.

It's a relationship Miller and his co-workers savor.

"Anytime I'm having a bad day, anytime I've questioned the career I've chosen, I can come in here and get a smile from one of these guys and it's all worthwhile," Miller said.

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