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HERITAGE CENTER GALA CELEBRATES HOPE

The 50th anniversary gala of the Heritage Centers on Friday was more than just some schmoozy, upscale fund-raiser to Arlene O'Brian.

Stuck at home with a terrible cold, O'Brian, 84, contemplated the evolution of an organization that started out five decades ago as a handful of families who wanted more for their mentally retarded children than society said they could have.

As one of the founders, O'Brian struggled to recall when her daughter was 3 and the doctors said the girl was retarded. She struggled to remember when her daughter was refused admission to the Catholic school, and what it took to later squeeze her into a special education class.

So much has changed since then.

"I just can't believe it," O'Brian said. "We were about 25 or 30 couples and just started this dumb thing all by ourselves, and here we are at the 50th celebration."

The Heritage Centers, once a division of the New York State Association for Retarded Children, is now the eighth largest nonprofit organization in Western New York with a $24 million budget and 800-member staff that supports and assists developmentally disabled children and adults from birth to late adulthood, said Executive Director Michael Gross.

All this grew from a founding group of five families that managed to win a $500 grant years ago to start the organization, he said. They gathered for meetings and dinners on Sundays and made lifelong friendships.

The organization combated that sense of isolation among families with mentally disabled children and created a place where those with special needs could learn, grow and become an integrated part of the real world, he said.

The black-tie fund-raising gala at the Buffalo Niagara Marriott was a celebration of that accomplishment, of the force that grew from a fledging after-school program for retarded children into a diversified agency that serves 3,000 families a year.

A lavish spread of hors d'oeuvres, balloons and dinner plates filled the Marriott on Friday night, welcoming patrons and clients. O'Brian's 56-year-old daughter was among them, confident enough to head to the gala without her mother. A car sent over by the agency picked her up.

"I'm so proud of her," O'Brian gushed.

Friday night's event was the splashiest event held by Heritage Centers and culminates a year full of anniversary activities, Gross said. A mammoth Buffalo Bills tailgate party called "Jumbogate" is planned for Sunday.

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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