A labor of love has produced a new place of inclusion and empowerment on Main Street in Pennington. In the space most recently known as “Chance on Main,” Pennington Borough now welcomes “PALS on Main,” a not-for-profit shop featuring items made by adults living with disabilities, which opened last weekend with a celebratory grand opening.
PALS on Main, which stands for “Pennington Adult Living Services,” is owned and operated by Sergio and Violetta Neri, also the owners of the Hopewell Valley Vineyards. Inspired by their love of their youngest child, Davide, who is autistic, and a resolve to empower adults with developmental disabilities, the Neris are determined to provide these individuals with opportunities to build on existing skills and develop new ones.
“This is a store with a conscience, a heart,” Violeta stated. “This is not a store for the pocketbook.”
The grand opening atmosphere was full of excitement and anticipation on a brisk autumn evening as the Neris welcomed customers to the new store. The warmly lit space beckoned friends and passersby to come in and visit where hors d’oeuvre and, of course, wine, waited to welcome all. Handmade aprons, napkins, wooden candle holders, and pencil holders were carefully arranged on tables and shelves highlighting the handy work of the participants involved with PALS. Handmade socks and earrings hung against the wall near a table laden with eyeglass cases and bookmarks. Featured items also include pieces donated to the organization by local artists and craftspeople. One artist and sculptor, Giovanni Fusaro, donated an embellished flute sculpture with plans to donate more in the future.
“The store is divided into two spaces,” store manager Deb Allen explained. “The front half is the actual store space or retail space. The back portion is a functioning workspace where some of the things sold in the front half are created.”
In the workspace area, a few stray spools of thread and rulers were visible in a cupboard that housed neatly stacked fabric squares of varying hues and textures. “These are swatches of fabric the participants use to make these fabric balls,” Allen explained while reaching for a multicolored ball just a bit smaller than a soccer ball and much softer.
In addition to PALS on Main, the winery itself provides opportunities where participants can work. “In the beginning, we had some of the participants making the cases that the wine would be stored in,” Violetta said.
The Neris have devised what they call an “A-team” consisting of themselves, program manager Svein Hansen, and the three participants who have been with them the longest. This group represents a core team well-acquainted with some of the projects around the vineyard including packaging mulch for sale and repurposing objects around the vineyard to use on shelves and tables at PALS on Main.
Sergio also is very hands-on when it comes to the new store, although you are more likely to see Violetta, who stated that her husband is one hundred percent committed to the vision they have for PALS.
“Our dream is to provide more for people with disabilities,” Violetta said. “We want to give them confidence. I know there is a lot of need out there, a lot of heartbreaking need, and we want as much as we can to provide for those individuals.”
PALS is fully certified and licensed through the New Jersey Department of Developmental Disabilities to provide various services from behavioral and individual support to respite care and community inclusion. Each participant earns a salary from their work, with each one assigned a task or job based on their individual ability. This allows the A-team to find the right place for individuals in the program and helps Svein develop strategies to hone the skills they have and introduce new ones.
“Eventually, we would like to build two residential group homes, one for men and one for women,” Violetta added. “That is a ways in the future but something we are really looking forward to doing.”
PALS on Main is located at 34 Main Street Pennington, New Jersey, 08534. It is a not-for-profit store and all proceeds go to the programs and participants.