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Spreading Smiles All the Way to Albany

Gerard Thomas worked for the better part of 20 years in a factory workshop for disabled adults run by the Queens Centers for Progress.

But the 45-year-old Queens Village resident, who suffers from Down syndrome and partial hearing loss, was never quite happy in the factory, which packages products for area retailers.

"He was always in trouble because he was more interested in reacting to the person next to him than in getting done what he needed to get done," his mother Elizabeth recalled.

So Gerard Thomas turned to volunteering, and he now gets all the human contact he needs at two senior centers and a VA hospital, and he was honored for those activities May 20 by the state Senate in Albany.

State Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose) presented the New York State Senate Achievers Award to Thomas as his mother and sister Beth watched.

"They took him to the floor of the Senate," Elizabeth Thomas said. "He had Gerry up on the desk and he was banging the gavel to start the session. It was so inspiring."

It is the second year the Senate has given out the awards, and there were 22 recipients from across the state.

"What we're trying to do with this and many other things is make people aware that a disability is not a reason why a person cannot be a contributing member of society," Padavan said. "It's helpful for the public to know and to acknowledge their accomplishments."

Thomas spends one day each week at the Ridgewood Senior Center, where he assists in food preparation and cleanup; a day at the Hillcrest Senior Center, where he packages utensils in the dining area; and a day at the St. Albans Veterans Hospital, where he folds sheets and towels in the laundry room.

"I make people who have no smile smile," Thomas said when asked why he enjoyed volunteer work.

Thomas' mother said that such a schedule can be disconcerting to people with Down syndrome, but her son liked to think of it as an adventure.

"He wakes up and says 'What day is it? Where are we going today?'" she said.

Queens Centers for Progress, the organization which coordinates Thomas' volunteer activities, suggested him for the Senate award.

"We nominated Gerard because he absolutely loves volunteering and giving back to the community," said Ellen Murphy, director of day services at QCP. "He is the kind of person who always agrees to do anything that is asked of him, and he does it enthusiastically. He doesn't shirk."

In addition to volunteering, Thomas receives instruction in the use of community resources the other two days of the week.

He told his mother that receiving the Senate honor was "like getting a reward for doing something that you like to do."

But when asked if that meant he didn't want the award, Thomas reacted quickly.

"No, I love the reward," he said.

Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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