How a suburban family is helping fight loneliness among seniors and those with special needs

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CHICAGO — Two suburban brothers have started a program that pairs teen mentors with members of the special needs community to fight loneliness at retirement homes.

William Pujals, an 18-year-old senior at Loyola Academy was recently crowned the prep Athlete of the Year.

The team has been near the top of the state rankings all season long.

The star basketball player doesn’t need to look far for inspiration. His older brother Peter was one of Loyola’s greatest athletes, as the quarterback of the vaunted Ramblers football team. Peter went on to star at Holy Cross and play professional football for a couple of years.

But both William and Peter, 25, say they find inspiration in their other brother, J.C., a 20-year-old who has Down syndrome.

 “J.C. definitely was an inspiration,” William said. “Every time I go play, I’m thinking about him.”

Peter said abilities come in many different forms.

“Obviously having a brother with a disability has been an inspiration to me as well as for William,” he said. “To make sure we’re taking advantage of our talents and what we have.”

The Pujals brothers say J.C. may not be as athletic, but he certainly has his own special abilities. He’s a social genius who makes people happy wherever he is.

“People with Down syndrome have what I call the sixth sense,” said C.C. Pujals, the boys’ mother. “They can feel and know what people are going through. They can feel if you’re upset. They know if you’re happy, they know if you’re down without you even trying to show it.”

But beneath J.C.’s jovial exterior, it’s sometimes easy to overlook that he can get lonely.

William also noticed that loneliness can also be a problem with senior citizens.  He decided to come up with a way for both groups to find companionship, and along with J.C., he founded “Senior Buddies.”

 “It’s a great way to build a community and bring everyone together,” William said. “It’s not only helping him and the seniors, but it gives a great new perspective to the mentors.”

The program pairs teen mentors with a member of the special needs community, and together they visit senior homes to help with laundry, go for a walk, or just spend time playing games or in conversation.

“It teaches me to let the little things go in life and to not – to be really grateful for what I have – it gives you a new outlook on everything really,” said volunteer Lucan Mortenson, a senior at Glenbrook South High School.

The group is now looking for more volunteers.

“It’s hard to know who’s going to benefit the most from it,” said Pedro Pujals, the boys’ father.  “The seniors, the buddies or the mentor, because you can make a case for each one.”


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