On March 19, the MS Dream Center opened its doors for a special celebration.
The occasion was a chance to show off the center’s newly updated home and recognize those who helped along the way. Funding and support came from local leaders and grants from the Champlin Foundation and Rhode Island Foundation.
The MS Dream Center has been located in the Peter Pastore Youth Center on Gansett Avenue for nine years, and the building was taken over by the Cranston Parks and Recreation Department recently. The department renovated the building into a totally ADA-compliant space through a project managed by Recreation Director Tony Liberatore. The renovations included a new roof, new carpeting, automatic doors and newly painted indoor spaces, thanks in part to funding from the Champlin Foundation.
“We now have a totally accessible bathroom with automatic door buttons inside and out, and automatic soap dispensers and hand dryers,” said Marie Perna, who has multiple sclerosis and co-founded the MS Dream Center along with her husband, Don, in order to help others facing the disease in Rhode Island and the Southern New England area.
“It’s like paradise,” she said as she gave a brief tour of the updated spaces, including the gym area, which has been painted and has a fully mirrored wall. “This is our gym three days a week. We have things like Zumba, yoga and exercise to music. Our gym equipment was purchased with grant money from the Rhode Island Foundation. It’s really all a dream come true.”
The grant from the Rhode Island Foundation also provides for professionals to help run the exercise programs.
Marie Perna spoke fondly of the bonds that are created at the MS Dream Center and pointed to a poster on the wall that was filled with photos.
“This is us,” she said. “Everyone who walks through those doors, some who have passed on, some who are care partners – we are proud to have known all of them.”
Don Perna addressed the audience during the speaking portion of the celebration, thanked them all for coming, and shared some of the history behind the MS Dream Center as well as some of its challenges in recent years since finding out that the space was changing hands.
The room was filled with those who utilize the MS Dream Center along with care partners and many other supporters, including Mayor Allan Fung; former state Rep. Robert Lancia; City Councilman John Donegan; Louise Pastore, wife of Peter Pastore, for whom the building is named; television news anchor Mike Montecalvo, who is involved in the foundation; Michael Matracia, also known as “Mr. Accessibility”; and Tina Pedersen, Ms. Wheelchair RI 2018.
“I think you remember what this building looked like. It was run down and kind of in disrepair,” Don Perna said. “[Liberatore] redid this building from soup to nuts, and the mayor has always been very gracious to us. We didn’t know where we stood and we went out and looked for accessible spaces, which were hard to find because we have a lot of special needs. Good spaces were not really available.”
Don Perna shared that the city allowed the MS Dream Center to sign a long-term lease. He thanked Fung for his continued support.
Fung expressed how glad he was to be able to continue to keep working with the MS Dream Center and to have the Pastore Youth Center back under the city’s care.
“This is the heart of the community,” the mayor said. “This is what it’s all about. This is a great community space and what many communities should be doing to help one another. It’s a wonderful partnership. It’s a great opportunity not just as a gathering space but a great opportunity for the many people who pass through these doors.”
Fung thanked the Rhode Island Foundation and the Champlin Foundation for their funding and support.
Louise Pastore congratulated the MS Dream Center on its updated space. She expressed her joy at the fact that her husband envisioned being able to give kids a space where they could go to be engaged in activities during their out-of-school hours, and that the space continues to be utilized for such important uses as the MS Dream Center.
Larry Warner, grant programs officer at the Rhode Island Foundation, recognized the Pernas and the city’s leadership for their work.
“I’m delighted to be here to celebrate the completion of the renovations,” he said.
Marie Perna said she was “overwhelmed” by the community’s support.
“We have come full circle since 2009, when we had this idea to have a center for people who have MS,” she said. “At that time, we got 30 couples with MS who gave us $1,000 each, and that was our seed money. Once we got it, we said we really could do something with this, and that’s when we started.”
The center was initially located in Scituate but relocated to provide more convenient and plentiful transportation options.
“We’ve been in this location ever since then,” Marie Perna said. She thanked Fung and Liberatore for their continued dedication and support.
“Since day one, the MS Dream Center has been in operation for one purpose only – to improve the lives of our members with MS, their families and their friends, and I think it’s done that to the best of our ability,” she said. “And we haven’t been able to do it without all of the wonderful volunteers who come to us every week and exercise with us and give us their time. This is what we’re about, people helping people … we can’t do it without all of the help from the city and all of the local people.”
Several of the MS Dream Center members expressed their thanks from the audience. They cited the ways in which their participation at the center has helped them and how much it means to them.
To learn more about the MS Dream Center, visit msdreamcenter.org.
The organization also used a past Rhode Island Foundation grant to create an accessibility website and mobile app to help those with MS find accessible options for restaurants, movie theaters, beaches, museums and more. To view that site, visit access-ri.org.