A local non-profit called The Friends of Matt Galligan recently disbanded, but not until providing financial assistance to Watertown families that have children with disabilities for more than three decades.
The group formed in 1990 as a way for the Galligans to spread the kindness shown by their neighbors to others in Watertown.
After renting in town, Frank and Cindi Galligan bought a house on the Westside of Watertown. They wanted to do some additions to their house to allow their son Matt stay at home, rather than attending a residential program. However, they realized they would not be able to afford the work to make it safe for Matt.
“Our son was 6 years old. Matthew Galligan was born with Cerebral Palsy. He is quadriplegic — no real movement of arms or legs, he’s legally blind, non-verbal. He needs help with a lot of things. He understands a lot of what is said to him and what’s going on around him,” Frank said. “We made a decision early on that we would do everything we could to care for Matt and care for him at home.”
They got someone to redesign the house so Matt could live there, including widening doorways, installing a roll-in shower, and creating a first-floor bedroom. The estimate was about $60,000 but the Galligans could only fund about half the cost.
There are now resources that families can access, such as low-interest or no-interest loans to make renovations to homes to accommodate their needs, that were not available to the Galligans in 1990.
“We had tried state, local and federal sources for some sort of support before we ever tried to develop a plan. At each level people agreed with us, there should be something to keep people in homes, but none of the levels of government had support in a way to keep children with their families,” Cindi said. “We are relieved that families can now find a level of support. There are so many traumas, especially when you realize your child is going to be permanently disabled — at any age, at birth — and it is going to be the rest of their life.”
At the time, the State would provide funds for Matt to reside in an institution, but would not provide money for the family to keep him at home. A friend wrote an article about the Galligans’ situation that appeared in Globe West about the situation. People in Watertown noticed and reached out.
“Jack Bartley, the State Rep. at the time, contacted us, along with Steve Messina, also Kelley McDonald, wife of the (MacDonald) Funeral director, and Allen Gallagher, and John Madden who was on the School Committee for years,” Frank recalled “They all said they would help.”
They offered to raise money for the Galligans, but the couple did not want the effort just to focus on their situation
“Cindi and I said we would accept help but only if we kept it going for other families,” Frank said. “Everyone said, ‘Ya, sounds like a great idea.'”
The Friends of Matt Galligan became an official non-profit in 1990. Many of the people who got involved at the beginning stayed involved and became members of the non-profit’s board of directors. They raised money, with the major fundraiser being the annual golf tournament.
“We should give a lot of credit to Ray Forte, Ed Griffin, Kevin Calden, along with a host of other volunteers,” Frank said. “It would usually raise between $10,000 and $20,000 a year. Every dime went to families, and any money that was left over, basically almost all of it, went to the Watertown Boys and Girls Club.”
The Friends also made donations to The Price Center in Newton, a program Matt attends during the daytime, Mondays to Fridays.
The board also decided how to distribute the money.
“Over the years we have been able to help 2-3 families a year,” Frank said. “There have been some major house projects, like ours. Mostly (installing) van lifts, widening doorways, sometimes an iPad for an autistic child. We gave money to the Boys & Girls Club for a ramp for the swimming area.”
The Friends usually found families that needed help with the assistance of the Watertown Public Schools’ special education department. The focus was helping people with a link to Watertown.
“If you grew up in Watertown and moved to Waltham we would consider them,” Frank said. “There were a couple times where families were affected by a catastrophic event, like a fire. Everything was voted on by the board.”
Frank got involved in advocating people with disabilities in town. He was the first chair of Watertown’s Commission on Disability, and was appointed to a state-level committee by then-Gov. Paul Cellucci. One of the local efforts was to make Town Hall more accessible to people with disabilities.
“Matt took the first ride on the Town Hall elevator,” Frank recalled. “We had pushed hard with the Commission on Disability. Richard Mastrangelo was the Council President at the time.”
Over the years, the Friends of Matt Galligan were featured on TV, including pieces by Channel 4’s Dan Rea, and in stories that appeared in Watertown Tab.
Fast forward to the present, and the Friends of Matt Galligan decided that it was time to wind down the group’s work, Cindi said.
“I think it’s run its course,” she said.
This year, the Galligans went through the process of disbanding the non-profit, which they discovered was quite complicated, including getting the approval of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
About a week ago, the people who had invested so much time and energy in the group gathered at the Galligans house for a celebration of the Friends of Matt Galligan’s 30+ years of work.