New Jersey Teen Creates Nightclub for Developmentally Disabled Adults: 'It's What They See in the Movies'
"When they see the red carpet, it's what they see in the movies," Matthew Mandeli tells PEOPLE. "They are kind of speechless."
When Matthew Mandeli was a baby, his mother would bring him to the New Jersey nonprofit she started for developmentally disabled adults.
There, clients such as Jeff Sudol, who lives in one of Life Opportunities Unlimited‘s group homes, would spend a lot of time with little Matthew. They especially loved to push his stroller back and forth so he wouldn’t cry.
“In some ways,” says Matthew’s mom, Gail Tamirian-Mandeli, “they’ve been like uncles. It’s developed into a really tight friendship.”
As Matthew, an only child, grew up, he’d delight these pals with magic tricks or the finer points of building a baking-soda volcano. “Every time I learned a new thing in school I’d show it to them and say, ‘Guys, look at this,’ ” Mandeli, now 19, tells PEOPLE. “A lot of the guys who have been here for a very long time are like family.”
Four years ago, the then 15-year-old Mandeli came up with the idea of creating a cool nightclub experience for his friends, complete with red carpet, velvet ropes and photographers capturing their arrival.
When Mandeli revealed the idea to his mother, he tells PEOPLE she said, “What are you talking about? You’ve never been to a club.”
No matter. In February 2013, Mandeli secured – for free – a nightclub in his hometown of Ridgewood, New Jersey. Some 100 developmentally disabled adults from the area walked the red carpet and a photographer snapped their arrivals before they danced the night away.
“When they see the red carpet, it’s what they see in the movies,” says Mandeli, who just finished his freshman year at Cornell. “They are kind of speechless, their eyes are wide open.”
Inside awaited a DJ, disco lights, food from area restaurants and an alcohol-free bar manned by the town’s mayor. Scores of volunteers shared dances with the guests. Everything was donated.
On Friday night, Mandeli is throwing his fourth annual nightclub, called Club LOU Tonight, at the Park West Tavern in Ridgewood. Over 100 developmentally disabled adults from group homes in the surrounding area are expected to attend.
“A lot of the guys here struggle socially,” says Mandeli. To see they are able to go around and have a good time and talk to everyone, it’s a great feeling.”
And it s even more special for the guests. “They forget their health issues, they are in there socializing and partying the night away,” says Margaret Waterman, a director at Life Opportunities Unlimited. “It’s wonderful. At the end of it, the whole week after, we hear all about it and what a good time they have.”
Sudol, now 56, will help Mandeli, handing out party swag that includes sunglasses. Mandeli’s kindness over the years has forged a deep connection between the pair. “He’s my best friend, the best friend I ever had,” says Sudol of Mandeli. “He’s a nice person. I love him.”