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As a young mother with a 3-year-old son with cerebral palsy, Stephanie Dipiano was alone and overwhelmed.

While feeding Stephen one day, she happened to see a tiny announcement in her local paper about a group called Agape that had just formed to help parents with children who were mentally retarded or developmentally disabled.

"She was the first one who ever called us," recalled Trudy Fish, the executive director of Agape Parents Fellowship Inc.

That was 19 years ago. Today the organization -- whose name means unconditional love -- has helped more than 1,800 families in Western New York.

And on Sept. 17 and 18 they're hoping to reach out to even more people through a community awareness conference.

To deal with the wave of new group homes that will be coming to the area -- and the community protests that invariably follow -- the state is launching a grass-roots education effort.

Thomas E. Maul, commissioner of the state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, will address the group along with retired NFL quarterback Frank Reich and his wife, Linda. Community leaders and parents are expected to fill the Tabernacle, 3210 Southwestern Blvd., Orchard Park, for the two-day event.

"The commissioner is meeting with groups across the state, from Adopt-a-Highway to quilting societies, anywhere attitudes can be changed," said spokeswoman Deborah Sturm Rausch. "We need to sensitize and increase the awareness of the community that people with mental retardation and developmental disabilities should rightfully be included in the community."

And while the commissioner often addresses groups -- including religious organizations -- he is taking a more grass-roots approach because of the new wave of group homes being built.

People's attitudes often change when they realize a member of their own congregation or the child of someone in the congregation is disabled.

"One of the things we need to do is to get into the churches and synagogues, because that's where changes of the heart occur," Mrs. Fish said.

Agape has taken its message to civic groups, schools and churches. The conference is its first attempt to reach a larger audience, Mrs. Fish said.

Agape was founded 19 years ago by three couples who had disabled children. It provides financial assistance and services to families, but also spiritual support and a helping hand.

Mrs. Dipiano still remembers when her son, Stephen, underwent surgery. Agape volunteers showed up at the hospital and helped cook for her family while she sat by her son's hospital bed.

"I felt better because they were there for me and I had someone to talk to about it," she said. "They share the word of God and how the spiritual side helps you get through all the rest."

For information or to attend the conference, call Agape at 827-5407.

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