Lively living

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  • One day, John Baker Jr. might be at St. Francis Thrift Shop on Hilton Head Island, helping sort clothes and collect hangers.

    Another day, he could be spending an afternoon bowling or playing tennis.

    Baker is a member of Hilton Head Island's Programs for Exceptional People, which provides opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities to socialize, work and otherwise promote independent living.

    PEP is celebrating its 15th anniversary, and Baker has been with the program from just about the beginning, watching it change from limited offerings to a full-fledged day program that serves dozens of members. And, in turn, he's reached a point in his life he thought he might never achieve.

    "PEP has enabled John to grow," said his father, John Baker.

    PEP started in 1996 with six families who were looking for activities for their grown children with developmental disabilities.

    It started with a summer session of mostly social activities. The full day program started in 1998, shortly after John Baker Jr. joined the program as a 28-year-old.

    PEP grew steadily over time, and fairly quickly over the past three years. It now has 40 members, up from 25 just a few years ago.

    PEP offers a variety of options to its members each day, ranging from a pottery class where the participants can sell their work to job opportunities with local businesses and nonprofit groups. Baker works Tuesdays at Hilton Head Hospital and volunteers Thursdays at St. Francis Thrift Shop.

    Aside from making money stuffing envelopes for the hospital, for example, the work gives him a chance to flex his mind, helping him with sociability, focus and concentration, among other skills.

    When he's not working, he's playing tennis, bocce or one of PEP's other sports or arts programs.

    Baker found a niche in bowling, even traveling to Reno, Nev., to participate in the Special Olympics last year. He travels on weekend field trips to Charleston to see a ball game or to Savannah to see the circus.

    The full days of activity stand at a contrast to Baker's life before the program. Without PEP, he said he'd probably just "stay home and be bored."

    Baker is originally from Indiana. He struggled with a severe speech disorder in childhood that basically made him unable to talk. His family thought he might have to be institutionalized, but kept pressing for an alternative until they found an institute in Kansas that was able to help John communicate.

    After high school, he was able to work a few fast food jobs. His father was a sales manager and frequently took Baker on business trips to Chicago or Minneapolis.

    And he thought that might be all he could provide for his son. But then he heard about the newly formed program on a resort island in South Carolina. And he knew that was the right fit.

    At age 42, Baker now is talkative and outgoing, despite the speech impediments he's fought throughout his life.

    He's a calendar savant, meaning he'll ask the date of your birthday and quickly tell you what day of the week you were born on. In that vein, he'll play tricks on executive director Harold Watson, sometimes fooling him to thinking it's a Thursday instead of a Wednesday, for instance.

    Just the way he's taken to life has impressed his father, who thought this day may never come.

    "John has really embraced life," said his father. "And PEP provided that lifeline."