February 24. 2013 11:01PM

DreamCatchers group goes beyond its Goffstown roots

Union Leader Correspondent

David and Erin DiBello founded a group for students with disabilities in 1995. (COURTESY)

GOFFSTOWN - In 1995, Erin Whipple and David DiBello found themselves in middle school without a lot of connections, and struggled to find a place to belong.

Both had disabilities. Whipple struggled with learning disabilities, vision issues and ADHD. DiBello had viral encephalitis at age 7 and experienced memory problems.

"Both of us had disabilities and we had no group at school," said Whipple. "We just wanted a place where we belonged."

The two decided to take matters into their own hands and start a group where they could make friends with other students facing similar situations and have everyone feel accepted.

"At the beginning, it was about expressing themselves," recalled Donna DiBello, David's mother.

The early days of DreamCatchers were supported by civic groups such as the Odd Fellows and St. Matthew's Church. A counselor, himself blind, often attended group meetings, and students began to organize outings, dances and Halloween parties.

Michele Petersen's son, Nick, was an early member of the group, and she began volunteering.

"I just thought it was the greatest thing," she said. "I saw it as a gift."

As the group grew and the children flourished, Petersen said there was talk of trying to expand the program.

"We had conversations over the years about how great it would be to take it further," she said.

Finally, in December of 2011, Petersen was able to secure a board of directors and last year the group received tax-exempt status. Goffstown is the first chapter of DreamCatchers, and Petersen is working with other school districts to set up chapters in other schools.

Fundraising has begun in earnest, with a recent art auction at UNH at Manchester bringing in about $8,000, said Petersen.

Donna DiBello said DreamCatchers has had an impact on all of the families involved.

"It not only connected the kids together, it connected us as parents," she said. "It's really been a support for me."

As for Erin and David, now 31 and 30, respectively, the two will remain with the group as mentors.

They both have jobs and live independently; Erin volunteers with the New Hampshire Food Bank.

"If I didn't have this group, I wouldn't have been able to make so many friends," said Whipple.

"It feels really good, you start helping yourself and now we can help others," DiBello added.

But perhaps the most important outcome of the involvement of the Whipples and DiBellos with DreamCatchers is that it has linked the two families together. Erin and David were married last fall in a ceremony led by Rev. William Exner of St. Matthew's, who began the couple's journey with them nearly 18 years ago.

"It was our happily ever after," Whipple said.