March 1, 2011

POAC Gala 2011

Posted in Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , at 12:44 pm by autismmommytherapist

A few weeks ago, Oprah announced to the world that she had located a long-lost sister she’d never known existed. Once I picked myself up off the floor (because really, doesn’t Oprah know EVERYTHING?), I admit I deviated slightly from my stimulating morning schedule of writing/laundry/Facebook, and delved into her story. It turns out Oprah has a half-sibling nine years her junior, a family member until recently kept hidden, completely lost to her. I can imagine she must have experienced ambiguous feelings surrounding the discovery, perhaps joy at finding a part of her heritage, perhaps regret at not having known her sister sooner (trust me, I do not presume to comprehend the inner workings of Oprah’s mind, I am certain it must be illegal). All I know for sure is that the universe granted her a new branch of family, with all of its inherent similarities and differences, residing practically in her own backyard.

And if you have a child with autism in New Jersey, Parents of Autistic Children (POAC) can be that new leaf on your family tree for you as well.

This past Saturday evening my husband and I had the pleasure of being invited to the annual POAC gala, at the Eagle Ridge Golf Club in Lakewood, New Jersey. I was, as usual, deliriously delighted to get out of my house (it was the first time I could breathe without steroids in a month, it doesn’t take much to excite me these days). The boys’ Grandma and Aunt Kate had been kind enough to volunteer to keep them alive so we could attend, and frankly I couldn’t wait to arrive at our destination (free babysitting, drinks, dancing and prizes in lieu of me in my bathrobe watching 30 Rock on our DVR, what’s not to like?). After a brief skirmish with my “bra master” that Jeff ultimately won (phooey on that first grade teacher who told him “brains yes, hands no”) we were finally ready to depart, and for once, nobody threw themselves across my stockinged legs and pinched feet and begged me not to go.

(No, Jeff’s not a giant, he’s just a yard taller than me)

All hail the power of Grandma.

It’s a beautiful venue, and thanks to the diligent efforts of the gala planning committee and the staff at Eagle Ridge, the entire affair was lovely. Faux fires spaced strategically around the rooms rid the air of that damp winter chill, the open bar was, unlike my twenty-something remembrances, not thirty people deep, and the appetizers were delicious and plentiful (did I mention the open bar?). Due to the benevolence of one of the primary volunteers for the organization Jeff and I were seated at a primo table, which although its proximity to the DJ would render me temporarily deaf for a few hours that night, did afford me the opportunity to survey the room and its occupants. I’d have to say it was almost a giddy crew, including many parents with offspring on the spectrum, grateful for a break from the usual grind.

In general, when it comes to entertainment, we are a people easily pleased.

After somewhat reluctantly tearing ourselves away from the hors d’oeuvres and cocktail hour (free samosas, yum!), me, my husband and a few friends I’d been fortunate enough to have assigned to our table made our way to our seats, and settled in. There was already food set before me which made me inordinately happy, and once most of the assembled guests had taken their places, the lights subsequently dimmed. Gary Weitzen, the president of POAC, took the floor. He then proceeded to deliver a speech that momentarily made me abandon my salad AND my breadstick.

Trust me, that is no small feat.

(Gary Weitzen, president of POAC, and all-around good guy)

As he dove into his recital of POAC’s myriad accomplishments over the last decade, he began with an anecdote many of my readers can relate to, one that made me regret not bringing to the party both my mascara and my lipstick. In a moving tribute to his child, he shared with us the devastating day a specialized pediatrician had told him, and his then three-year-old son, that the latter had major developmental delays. I wrenched my eyes away from Gary for just a few moments during his discourse, glanced around the dimly lit room, and noticed many heads nodding, viewed multiple bodies braced against chairs in anticipation of what surely was to come. Of course the crushing blow arrived in the form of an almost casual chaser, “your son has autism”, which quickly concluded the physician’s visit. Sadly, I am certain our POAC president, even in this day and age, is not alone in his suffering through the brevity, and coldness, of that concise phrase.

Gary shared with us that he drove home alone from Philadelphia with his son, mired in a fog that he couldn’t seem to dissipate with wiper fluid or headlights, until he realized its origins commenced with his own eyes. This was 1997. There were not as yet thousands of agencies, websites, blogs, and chat rooms for parents to commence their descent into the labyrinth of scant local services. There were autism organizations throughout our state, but there was nothing reminiscent of what we today know of as POAC. Free, plentiful trainings for teachers and parents throughout New Jersey, did not as then exist. Law enforcement did not readily have the option to be instructed in the signs of autism, were not frequently educated in the ways in which an individual on the spectrum might react in a stressful situation. Perhaps, most importantly, there were precious few opportunities for parents to congregate with their children in safe environments for recreational purposes, always for free.

(Simone Tellini, Training Coordinator, and a POAC mover and shaker)

Rather than capitulate to that reality, Gary Weitzen transcended that fog, and rose to fill the void.

I could share with you that POAC, in addition to offering the services listed above, is the largest provider of free autism training and education in the entire state. I could inform you that its classes for teachers and aides, focusing on the core deficits of autism, namely communication, behaviors, and socialization issues, have literally transformed entire classrooms. Finally, I could regale you with the joy I feel every time I watch my eldest child mount his ride, tell you that his intense love for the equestrian life would never have been discovered if POAC hadn’t pursued a local horseback-riding farm, and requested that they host an event.

I could tell you the latter, but then I’d just be bragging.

Instead, I’ll share this with you. I am so thrilled this organization exists in its many manifestations, with its bountiful services at my fingertips. I am so intensely grateful for the numerous companies who fund its endeavors, many of whom have only tenuous connections to autism through a valued employee. Watching my friends, and numerous people I’ve come to have a great deal of respect for whoop it up on a dance floor was a joy (and yes, me and my husband were most certainly included in that gyrating posse). In an act of over-the-top abundance I not only won a basket through the elaborately constructed raffle (then had to be educated as to who Ed Hardy is, it’s sad getting old), but I believe I’ve also scored a new playdate opportunity for my youngest, just one town over. I could tell you, with all honesty, that my oft-filled wine glass overfloweth.

But I’ll relate this to you as well. At the end of a beautifully constructed film montage, resplendent with unforgettable images of our children and their triumphs, one phrase, recited by those young voices able to enrich our lives with intelligible sound, rang honest and pure. In a world where often nothing is certain, this truth is indelibly clear.

We are family.

For information on how you can volunteer for POAC, or simply enjoy their events, please visit the website at:


  1. Amber said,

    Thank you for the recap. I miss Gary and Simone so much!

  2. Mom said,

    Beautifully said. So glad you had a good time, and POAC is there for families and professionals.

  3. misifusa said,

    Wow…what a great night! So happy for you and everyone else at POAC! Great pic of you and Jeff too!

  4. Kathy M said,

    Glad you had a night out! And hurray for POAC!

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