When Justin Gentile is around his model trains, nothing else in the world seems to matter. Gentile loves everything about model trains, from the moving parts to the motor, to assembling the track — he knows where every piece should go and how to put it there.
“When I was young, I got into model trains and it’s something that, when I noticed Justin’s interest in it, immediately bonded us together,” said Justin’s father, Steve Gentile.
When Justin’s father realized he could connect with his son through model trains, he knew he wanted to bring his son to one of the largest model train events, the Cheshire Train Show, hosted by the Cheshire Band Parents Association, which happens to be in his own hometown.
Justin was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease, called Hunter's Syndrome, when he was young, and since then his parents have made every effort to try and make his life as normal as possible. The disease, which affects roughly one in every 100,000 individuals, is often characterized by a variety of upper respiratory, cardiac, and skeletal issues, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“Having a rare disease can be really isolating,” says Kim Gentile, Justin’s mother. “We have always tried to do things that include Justin as much as possible, and make him as much a part of the community as possible.”
Justin and his family started attending the Cheshire Train Show when he was young, but noticed a bit of a disconnect between the exhibitors and their young son.
“A lot of the things displayed at the train show are incredibly detailed and beautiful, but also fragile,” said Kim. “It’s sort of a ‘look but don’t touch’ feel, which is fine if you don’t have young kids.”
Kim noticed Justin enjoyed sharing his model train sets with friends and family members, and wondered whether her son could participate in the train show, but also introduce a more hands-on attraction that could serve two purposes.
“When Justin created ‘Kidstown, USA’ for the Train Show, we had no idea how it would go,” she recalled. “We really weren’t sure if this would be something anyone would be interested in, but we were wrong. The show has given Justin the ability to share something he loves with his peers, and allows for Justin to be a part of the community, and that is so important.”
Justin, who is now 18, created his very own, hands-on train experience for his friends and anyone attending the train show — a way for others to fully experience the joy of Justin’s favorite hobby.
Fully equipped with multiple plastic tubs filled with model trains, tracks, motors, and a large open space carved out for him in the Cheshire High School commons area, Justin’s set-up has become a fixture at the Train Shows, where he was the event’s youngest exhibitor when he first started out. Throughout the years, Justin has made some life-long friendships with other students who share his passion.
Now, 10 years after he first began, Gentile’s “Kidstown, USA” is one of the most asked-for exhibits of the event.
“We do the Train Show twice a year, once in November around Christmas time, and the other in March around Easter,” Kim added. Each show’s “Kidstown, USA” has a theme, and the theme for this March show was “Harry Potter.”
“This year, the kids were really excited to see the model Hogwarts Express, which we filled with Easter eggs. We usually try to show the Polar Express for Christmas — everyone loves that one,” she continued.
Since Justin has started at Cheshire High School, he has been receiving lots of help for the Train Show from CHS’s Best Buddies Chapter, which has welcomed him into their community with open arms.
“The Best Buddies program is just incredible for him,” mentioned Steve. “They have really welcomed him with open arms, and are so helpful for the Train Show. They are such a great help to us.”
The next train show will be in November.