Kenyon: Running For Rockstars

Fred Beebee washes dishes at the Woodstock Inn and Sarah Peters volunteers at a day care center in Claremont. In their off time, you might find them kayaking, snowshoeing or rehearsing for an upcoming musical together.

What are the chances that Beebee and Peters, who are developmentally disabled and live at opposite ends of the Upper Valley, would have an opportunity to strike up a friendship?

Until a half dozen or so years ago, the odds probably weren’t good.

Then Zack’s Place in downtown Woodstock came along to fill a gaping hole in the social services network for adults with special needs. Five days a week at no charge (more about that later), Zack’s Place provides what it describes as a “relaxed setting where people with special needs are free to explore art, music, dance and exercise while developing lifelong bonds.”

Patricia Peters drives her 25-year-old daughter from their home in Cornish to Woodstock a couple of times a week. “Zack’s Place has given Sarah an identity,” said Patricia Peters. “The thing that’s really nice is the friendship component. Two of her best friends from Zack’s Place are in wheelchairs and she gets to ski with them.” (Zack’s Place teams up with Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sport for weekly alpine outings in the winter.)

When Patricia Peters recently asked her daughter, whose developmental disabilities stem from a mild form of cerebral palsy, what she liked best about Zack’s Place, she replied, “There I’m not a big sister; I’m not a daughter. I’m Sarah.”

The story of Zack Frates has been told many times, but it bears repeating. Zack was a premature baby born with cerebral palsy. The neurological disorder, which has no cure, made him a quadriplegic and required him to communicate through facial expressions.

But Zack’s severe disabilities didn’t stop him from experiencing life. He learned to paint with a brush strapped to his hand. He zoomed down ski slopes in a sled crafted and maneuvered by his dad, Norm.

Norm and his wife Dail, Zack’s stepmother, figured other people with special needs deserved the same opportunities as Zack. By law, students with special needs can remain in high school until they turn 22. But what happens after they finish school?

Some, like Beebee and Peters, are able to hold down part-time jobs and do volunteer work. Still, it can be a challenge for families to fill up the rest of their time with meaningful activities.

At Zack’s Place, as Dail Frates puts it, “everyone can be a rock star.”

Beebee, who is in his 40s and was born with Down Syndrome, lives with his elderly mother in Woodstock. One day at Zack’s Place, he just pulled a harmonica out of his pocket and started playing. “We never knew he had that talent,” said Frates, who left her job selling real estate to become executive director of Zack’s Place.

In December, Beebee will perform in Zack’s annual musical fundraising event. He’s also become a fan of yoga, taking classes taught by Zack’s mother, Ann.

Meanwhile, Peters is game for just about anything from horseback riding to basketball, said Frates. She’s also taken on the role of helping Jessica Burrell, a 19-year-old from Pomfret with cerebral palsy, with art projects. “Jessica can talk, it just takes a little bit longer to get out what she wants to say,” Frates told me. “Sarah has a God-given gift of patience and works wonderfully with Jessica.”

On the back of greeting cards that Zack’s Place produces and sells around Woodstock, Burrell has written that her dream is “become a baker and sell chocolate chip cookies.”

She had plenty of practice last week. The goal is to make 1,000 chocolate chip cookies for Thursday’s sixth annual Thanksgiving Day 5k Turkey Trot, Zack’s biggest fundraiser of the year.

The event, which starts at Woodstock Elementary School at 10 a.m., brought in $43,000 last year. (Registration goes from 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. or can be done online this week at Last year, the Turkey Trot attracted 1,300 runners and walkers. This year, Dail Frates has done the math. It takes the registration fees of 100 runners ($25 in advance and $30 on race day) to keep the lights on and pay the other bills of Zack’s Place for a week.

Zack’s is a nonprofit organization that receives no federal or state funding. Its $170,000 annual operating budget depends on private grants and contributions. “It’s always a struggle to figure out where the money is going to come from,” said Frates.

The struggle became more emotional in September 2011, when Zack Frates died suddenly. He was 22.

“He was a good friend and part of our lives,” Burrell wrote. “Without him none of us would be here.”

What better reason to go out for a run on Thanksgiving morning.