The annual Waban Telethon, which helps provide services for children from across York County who attend the Fraser Ford Child Development Center in Sanford, is set for Saturday. Those who want an early opportunity to help Waban can enjoy a haddock dinner, prepared by the Knights of Columbus, at St. Ignatius Gym, 25 Riverside Ave., in Sanford on  Friday evening. The supper beings at 5 p.m. Friday; the Waban Telethon kicks off at 10 a.m. on Saturday. COURTESY PHOTO

SANFORD — For the last 47 years, mid-March has been Waban Telethon time — that annual opportunity for people across Maine to make a call and pledge some cash to help Waban continue its mission to provide services for children with development disabilities.

This year, the Waban Telethon is set for Saturday. Waban Executive Director Neal Meltzer said the telethon, held at the St,. Ignatius Gym and Parish Hall on Riverside Avenue, and sponsored annually by St. Therese of Lisieux Parish, is a boon to the organization.

“It helps in immeasurable ways,” said Meltzer. He pointed out that in 1966, when Waban first started as a summer camp, there were virtually no services for people with developmental disabilities. “Yet Waban found a way to build our first child development center, then funded teachers and therapists that were needed,” he said.

Waban began in 1966 with a dream and $17, as the history goes. In 1967, the first Waban summer camp was held.

In 2012, Meltzer pointed out, Waban raised the credentialing and clinical expertise of the autism staff and a year later saw gains of 50 percent in the children in the areas of socialization, language, communication, self- help, being safe and more. He said in 2019, those gains are continuing.

“There’s an economic (factor) behind early intervention,” said Meltzer. He said special education costs can be reduced by $15,000 per year per child when children have the right early education services.

In the early years of Waban, there was no state reimbursement, Meltzer said. There were various fundraisers in those days, then, the first telethon came into play 48 years ago.

As years went by, there was more of a recognition that children needed services, and there was more support from the Department of Education, but programs were mostly self-funded, said Meltzer.

He said the funds from the telethon are a big help.

“People ask how much it costs to send a child to Waban to get 6 hours in a 1 to 1 program five days a week, 240 days a year, with physical, occupational and speech therapy and breakfast, lunch and snacks,” said Meltzer. “It doesn’t cost parents anything.”

Waban does charge a fee for the daycare services it offers.

The telethon, a community-wide and beyond effort, raised $95,000 in 2018 to help provide services to youngsters 3 to 7 years old at Fraser Ford Child Development Center.

Waban serves both children and adults with disabilities. The  overall budget is about $19 million annually; an estimated $3 million of that is directed to children’s services, Meltzer said.

Currently, there are 50 children enrolled at the Fraser Ford Child Development Center on the Waban campus. By the end of the school year, there will be 60, said Meltzer. In prior years, he said, there were about the same number of children, but with the new autism therapy wing, built a few years ago, Waban is serving children with more significant needs, he said.

The children hail from as far away as Kittery, all reaches of York County  and occasionally from some Oxford County towns, like Hiram. For those families, Waban is an hour-long commute, twice a day.

On Friday evening before the telethon, the Knights of Columbus will be serving up one of its famous haddock dinners to benefit the telethon, said Meltzer,

In the kitchen on Friday at the St. Ignatius Gym will be about 20 volunteers, readying 100 pounds of haddock, 60 pounds of potatoes, peas, cole slaw, home made bread, macaroni and cheese and an array of desserts for the dinner that will benefit Waban that night, said Ray Sargent of the Knights of Columbus.

The K of C hosts six haddock dinner during Lent. The first drew about 175 people and Sargent expects the dinner on Friday will attract about 200 people looking for a good meal and to support Waban at the same time. The meal is $12 for adults, $5 for children and a $30 maximum for a family. It will be served 5 to 6:30 p.m.

After the clean-up, the K of C will be back at the hall again Saturday, serving breakfast and lunch at the Waban Telethon.

Doors open at 10 a.m. Saturday for a full day of entertainment, food, raffles, gift baskets and activities for the whole family including live music, entertainment and presentations from children who attend classes at the Fraser Ford Child Development Center. The Waban Telethon wind down at 6 p.m.

Waban welcomes visitors to stop by  at the telethon, or they can log on at https://waban.org/annul-telethon. The telethon will be broadcast through Atlantic Broadband and simulcast on The Legends 102.3 FM and AM1220, said Waban spokeswoman Heather Harris.

To make a financial pledge, call 324-5344 or 1-877-544-4275.

The telethon has a wide number of supporters, from those who donate the pennies they’ve saved just for that purpose, to those who are able to make larger financial contributions, or who contribute in other ways — like the businesses that donate goods and services.

In addition to the contribution from the Knights of Columbus, the parish offers the gym free for three or four days for set up and take down, and also makes a financial contribution to the Waban Telethon, Meltzer said.

“No matter what the size of the contribution, from 3 cents to $1,000 or more, every one gets to be part of that success every day, and are able to say ‘I did my part,’” said Meltzer. “ To me that is the real power of the event.”

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 780-9016 or [email protected]

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