CONCORD, N.H. (AP) – A recent reunion for former residents of the Laconia State School was part of a larger effort to record the experiences of a generation that helped redefine expectations for people with disabilities.

Dozens of men and women gathered at a Holiday Inn to reacquaint themselves with former schoolmates and recall their time at the school, an institution that housed children and adults with disabilities until it closed in the early 1990s.

The reunion was organized by a group called People First of New Hampshire and was the first step toward publishing a book based on the experiences of former state school residents.

Some reunion participants shared stories of their lives since leaving the school. Shirley Cargel, 63, told fellow attendees about surviving breast cancer and participating in fundraisers for cancer research. Anabelle Horne, 71, showed of pictures of her cat, Fuzzball, and described her 70th birthday party.

After lunch, participants were divided into small groups and told their stories. They described typical days at the school, their rooms, the rules. Some remembered dances and working on the school farm. Others described beatings and straitjackets.

“My parents didn’t love me,” said Carol Dow, 69. “They put me (in the state school) for the rest of my life. But I got out on my own because I wanted to make it, and I made it.”

For the past 20 years, Dow has lived in Hanover, where she has worked as a chamber maid, cared for homeless people and taken up horseback riding.

Freda Smith attended the reunion to catch up with Horne, who used to care for Smith’s daughter as part of a school custom that paired higher-functioning students with those in need of more care.

Janet Smith, who was among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the school’s closing, died four years ago. Her mother spent several hours talking with Horne, who described how she used to feed and change Janet and taker her out of her crib for exercise.

“I just have this wonderful, happy sensation that they’ve done so well,” Smith said. “The best thing that happened was closing that institution. People live in homes, not institutions. There’s a meaning to their lives now.”

Hunt and others will use details shared at the reunion to conduct in-depth interviews with former residents in the coming months. Other agencies that serve people with disabilities have similar plans. The Community Support Network, for example, is sponsoring a lecture tour focused on the history of the state school and hopes to raise money for a film about the lives of its residents.

“We wanted to make sure that the history was preserved and that the things that people went through weren’t ever repeated,” said Denis Powers, the network’s executive director. “They’re the group that really had to make the transition from the institution to community life. It was a very difficult step. To make the huge progress that they’ve made has been quite an accomplishment.”

Information from: Concord Monitor,

AP-ES-07-06-08 1123EDT

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