A contingent representing People Inc.’s Guys Group, a social program for young men with developmental disabilities, has completed a cross-country trip to raise the program’s profile and encourage the creation of others like it nationwide.
The group – four participants in the program and two staff members – visited with developmental disability agencies, including the Bethesda Lutheran Communities in Fort Collins, Colo.; Opportunity Village in Las Vegas; TERI Inc. in Oceanside, Calif.; and New Horizons in California’s San Fernando Valley.
Nick Cacciotti, a People Inc. life quality coach and mentor for the 6,000-mile trip, said he feels that the group accomplished a lot, and saw a lot of new things, but he also hopes the trip created awareness of the group and the bigger issues at hand.
“Hopefully, we can carry some ideas from across the country to Western New York about people with disabilities,” he said.
The six men returned to Buffalo on Monday morning and were greeted by a large crowd of cheering and clapping friends, family and staff members. The RV pulled up promptly at 9 a.m. at People Inc.’s Amherst offices, signaling the end of the 17-day journey.
Jon Caldwell, Nick Feeterman, Aaron Hanson and Eric Johnson, members of Guys Group, were chosen for the trip based on their abilities and interests. Cacciotti and Chris Zienski, another People Inc. staff member, joined them in the planning and execution of the trip.
The trip, which began May 30, was the first of its kind for People Inc.
The group held a variety of fundraisers, collaborated with sponsors and created a GoFundMe page, where they raised nearly $12,000 prior to the trip for expenses.
All four participants were instrumental in planning and budgeting for the trip, and the group learned social and safety skills along the way.
Hanson, who was born in California, was excited to travel back to the West Coast, where he was able to visit his grandmother and aunt. The 22-year-old said one of his favorite parts was hanging out with his friends.
“My friends are like my second family,” he said as he proudly held a flag from the NFL’s San Diego Chargers in honor of his hometown.
The six men also camped and hiked at the Grand Canyon for a few days, explored Las Vegas and Hollywood, and visited the Dale Rogers Training Center in Oklahoma City, among other destinations.
Zienski said one of the most rewarding experiences was watching each of the four men grow along the way.
“You could tell the difference, just the confidence that they gained being out on the road, approaching other people,” Zienski said.
Some of the participants experienced a few firsts while traveling across the country.
Eric Johnson, a Williamsville resident, never had a cellphone or credit card before, and after the trip, he can now say he has both.
“It was a life-changing experience for everyone,” Cacciotti said.
The group documented the entire trip from the preplanning stages to the homecoming with help from a local cinematographer, and plan to create a documentary, through fundraising on their GoFundMe page at GoFundMe gofundme.com/crossingborderswny. The trip was also documented through photos and short posts on their Facebook page, “Crossing Borders WNY.”