February 24, 2014

Parents of Autistic Children (POAC) Gala 2014

Posted in Fun Stuff, Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 3:57 pm by autismmommytherapist

POAC 1(Gary Weitzen, Executive Director of POAC)

This past Saturday evening I had the luxury of having a girls’ night out with a dear friend at the annual Parents of Autistic Children (POAC) gala, a celebration of fifteen years of their service to the New Jersey autism community. I was deliriously happy to get out of my house (this winter has taken its toll in more ways than one, ask my poor scale), and an event with parents of children with autism as well as autistic adults themselves was something I’d eagerly been looking forward to for weeks.

In addition to good music, good food (a pasta appetizer bar!) and even greater company I always seem to come away from this evening reenergized, more able to focus not only on the issues my two children on the autism spectrum are experiencing, but on their accomplishments as well. And in addition to eating and dancing the night away, everyone in attendance spends a good part of the night bragging about their kids’ successes to people who “get it.”

Frankly, it’s a fabulous perk of the night, right up there with those addictive chocolate-covered strawberries Eagle Ridge always serves at the end.

As my friend Babette and I settled into our table I prepared myself for POAC Executive Director Gary Weitzen’s annual speech (he never fails to make me cry at least once), searching through my night purse for a pen to take notes as my memory (and many other things) aren’t what they used to be. As usual, with his words I was rewarded. Gary did a wonderful job outlining the myriad ways in which POAC, which is the largest provider of free autism training and education in the entire state for both teachers and law enforcement officials, also provides a myriad of free recreational events for families.

POAC 2(Me, Gary, and fabulous friend Babette)

He also recounted a moving anecdote about his wonderful adult son Chris, regaling us with his desire to hear his then four-year-old child speak just one single word, a wish thankfully granted. Gary went on to inform us that for the past decade-and-a-half POAC had been building a parachute for families, and that now their focus would also include job and residential opportunities autistic individuals over twenty-one. As always, POAC is always looking both to improve their services, and to plan for the future of our children.

I have no doubt they’ll come through for all of us.

The night’s speeches were capped off by a moving slide show featuring autistic children and their families at various events, as well as the volunteers who single-handedly make POAC such a successful autism organization. Traditionally this hails my second crying spectacle of the night, and for once in an effort to preserve my mascara I permitted myself to turn away and take a good look, a really good look, around the gorgeously decorated room.

As I scanned the tables I saw fierce and Congress-celebrated autism advocate Bobbie Gallagher rubbing the shoulder of her beautiful adult daughter Alanna, and couldn’t help but recall how she’d helped me when I first moved to our town, assisting me in navigating the special education component of our school district. I watched as Simone Tellini (Gary’s right hand at POAC) was held rapt by the power point, and thought of the struggles she’d shared with me about her adult son with autism, how she’d moved mountains for him during a time when nobody really knew much about the disorder or truly seemed to care.

As I shifted in my seat I felt behind me the presence of Geoff and Roe Dubrowsky, two advocates who have advised politicians and served on every local, state and federal committee known to man, who also have an adult child on the spectrum. I truly looked around the room at one hundred and fifty people in their finery, all here to support one another as well as the organization hosting them.

I entered that room and saw it mostly full of strangers. By the end of the presentation, I felt myself to be an integral part of a growing, vibrant, and incredibly committed community.

POAC 4(Geoff Dubrowsky, Gary Weitzen, Roe Dubrowsky)

I’ve been a POAC member since shortly after I moved here in 2008, and I cannot emphasize enough how much this organization has meant to my family, and to countless others in the state. They are a well-spring of information, and provide those all-important recreational events for families in a safe environment, where no child or adult is ever judged. I am truly grateful to them for their continued support, and most importantly for the friendships I’ve made there, men and women whose acceptance, kindness, and humor have helped get this family through some dark times into the light.

It’s possible I appreciate their humor the most.

Whether you’ve had the “autism experience” for over a decade as I have, you have a child who’s newly diagnosed, or you’re simply looking for a wonderful place to volunteer, I can’t recommend POAC enough. I’ll list their contact information below, and I encourage you to reach out, whether it’s to gain help, or to offer yours. We are a community unto itself.

And if you’re seeking a community who cares, you’ve found your home.

Contact POAC at www.poac.net

 

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April 19, 2013

Autism Awareness Month- A Celebration of Autism Advocates

Posted in AMT's Faves, Fun Stuff, Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 9:46 am by autismmommytherapist

vince scanelli

Ed. Note:  April is Autism Awareness month, and as such provides an opportunity both to recognize the families struggling with the impact autism has made on their lives as well as to honor those who are helping to make their lives better. Among those leading the effort are three New Jerseyans who have helped countless families affected by autism. Bobbie Gallagher has been honored by Congress for her advocacy work in autism.

As Executive Director of POAC Autism Services, Gary Weitzen has trained tens of thousands of teachers, parents, and first responders throughout the state, and provided programming for families of autistic individuals.

Vincent Scanelli has fostered relationships between autistic and neurotypical children as founder of Someone Special Needs You (SSNY), and is now working to build group homes for adults with autism. Below is the third interview in the series.

Vincent Scanelli

Vincent Scanelli is the president of the non-profit Someone Special Needs You (SSNY), as well as the president of the Douglass Organization for Occupational and Related Educational Services, Inc. (DOORS) program at Rutgers University. He serves as Vice-President for Ride for Autism, a group home liaison for New Horizons in Autism, and as a Community Work Partner for the Monmouth County Chapter of the Arc of New Jersey.

Vince is the owner of the Colts Neck Insurance Agency, and has twenty-five years of expertise in financial planning as well as specializing in special needs and estate planning. He has two daughters, and an adult son on the autism spectrum.

Kim:  How did you come to be an autism advocate?

Vince:  Honestly, it was because my son was born. My family was born into autism, all we do is what we’re supposed to do for our kids. I really give credit to people who do this and don’t have kids with autism.”

Kim:  How did SSNY and your future group homes come into being?

Vince:  My son Angelo showed me the way. When he was little his mother and I wanted him to have peer relationships, but there was nothing out there, no groups. I got together with a couple of other parents and created SSNY, where kids with disabilities are paired with neurotypical teens for various activities.

We wanted Angelo and other kids to be able to get together and have some peer and social interaction, so we started doing monthly events. As Angelo has aged, our focus has shifted off into group homes. After this I’ll probably investigate work programs.”

Kim:  How did you get started with creating group homes?

Vince:  We started thinking about doing all this back when Angelo was thirteen, and he’s nineteen now. A friend of mine who is a planner knew I wanted to do a farm, and he knew a builder who was involved with affordable housing. We then connected with New Horizons in Autism, and got a grant from Marlboro, NJ to move forward with the plans.

Marlboro gave us part of their Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) funding, plus we partnered with a special needs housing trust fund (a state program). After that we would be able to purchase a house through New Horizons in Autism.

Everything was approved in July, but now the plans are stalemated, and we hope to move forward soon. We have enough money to buy a house, renovate it, and put three adults in it.

Kim:  What do you envision for the property you want to turn into a farm?

Vince:  We need about two million dollars to complete everything, but the property is ready, it has been donated by a large development called Overbrook Farms. It sits on twelve acres at the end of a cul-de-sac, has two barns, and it’s just beautiful.

It will have ten beds, two wings for five adults each. Since we have the barns I hope we will be able to do many different farming activities, raise alpacas, maybe have horses, and host events. Hopefully we’ll get the community involved in it as well.

My goal is for the adults to work the farm. I’d love to see the farm provide jobs for the people who live there, and for people in the community as well.

Kim:  What are your dreams and plans for your son over the next five-to-ten years?

Vince:  I just want him to be happy. I want him to be safe, have a good quality of life, and be the best person he can be.

April 12, 2013

Autism Awareness Month/Celebrating Autism Advocates

Posted in AMT's Faves, Fun Stuff tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 10:03 am by autismmommytherapist

POAC Gala 009

Ed. Note:  April is Autism Awareness month, and as such provides an opportunity both to recognize the families struggling with the impact autism has made on their lives as well as to honor those who are helping to make their lives better. Among those leading the effort are three New Jerseyans who have helped countless families affected by autism. Bobbie Gallagher has been honored by Congress for her advocacy work in autism. As Executive Director of POAC Autism Services, Gary Weitzen has trained tens of thousands of teachers, parents, and first responders throughout the state, and provided programming for families of autistic individuals. Vincent Scanelli has fostered relationships between autistic and neurotypical children as founder of Someone Special Needs You (SSNY), and is now working to build group homes for adults with autism. Below is the second interview in the series.

 

Gary Weitzen

Gary Weitzen is the Executive Director of POAC Autism Services (Parents of Autistic Children), which is the largest provider of free autism training and education in the state of New Jersey. Gary came to POAC with twenty years experience in the risk management field. In addition to his duties at POAC, for the past thirteen years he has worked for an autism program that teaches life skills to adults with autism. Gary currently serves on the New Jersey Governor’s Council for Biomedical Research. In the past he has served as New Jersey representative for Unlocking Autism, and Vice President of Princeton Autism Technology. He is frequently called upon by the media to provide his expertise on autism, and has given presentations to tens of thousands of people across New Jersey. Gary has three three children. His eldest son Christopher has autism.

Kim:  How did you come to be such a strong autism advocate?

Gary:  It all started with my son Chris, who is eighteen, and was diagnosed at age three-and-a-half. Before Chris, I had never known another child with autism. Just after he was diagnosed I attended an autism conference, and I looked around and saw a thousand other people sitting around me, all there for the same reason. I remember the presenters said they didn’t know anything about our kids back then. That’s when I knew I had to do something for the kids who had autism at that moment.

Kim:  You are the Executive Director of POAC. Can you describe the services POAC provides to children, parents, teachers, and law enforcement officials?

Gary:  POAC provides training for parents and families to help increase functional communication, decrease problem behavior, and increase socialization for their children with autism. We also provide training for teachers, paraprofessionals, and other service providers in evidence-based teaching procedures for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities. Basically, we help teachers become even better educators for students on the autism spectrum. We also provide training to members of the general community who come in contact with individuals with on the spectrum every day. Through our Autism Shield Program we’ve trained 14,000 police and firefighters, and every year we get calls saying the raining saved the life of a child with autism.

 

Kim:  What would your ten-year plan for POAC include?

Gary:  I have some big ideas. I’d like to see us have a large facility or center, with a gym and a lecture hall for trainings, and a stage where the kids could put on plays. It would have a huge kitchen, and a computer center. We would open our doors to kids and adults with all different disabilities, that’s how we are. It would cost a few million dollars, but could make such a difference in kids’ lives.

Kim:  What are your dreams for your son?

Gary:  Chris has come so far. One year from now I won’t have changed much, but Chris will have made even more progress. Over the next ten years I imagine him getting a job, getting a paycheck, and paying taxes. Right now about 80% of the autism population is unemployed, and yet the vast majority of people with autism could contribute to society. We know what we need to do, and with the right funding, and the right people at the table, we could do it. Chris’s life is nothing but joy. He’s happy, and that’s all that matters.

March 5, 2013

POAC Autism Services Walk-a-thon

Posted in Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , , , , at 11:05 am by autismmommytherapist

April, Play, Walk 2012 067

I know. Repeats suck.

Today I hope you’ll bear with me however, because I’m going to recycle something I wrote two years ago, a post that is dear to my heart. It’s about POAC Autism Services, and one of their many annual walk-a-thons in which my family participates every year.

This year it will be held on Sunday, April 28th at 12:00 in Blue Claws Stadium in Lakewood, and as usual, I anticipate they will have a stunning turnout. Even if you don’t contribute financially, please consider walking with us that day. If you have a relative, friend, or neighbor who has a child with autism, just your presence and support will make a difference in their lives. Thank you!

“Elmo should go back to Sesame Street, Mommy” says my youngest child as he hunches down in his stroller, in part to avoid the wind whipping mercilessly around the stadium on this early April morning, and in part because Elmo is clearly lost, and therefore should leave immediately. Buster, the Lakewood BlueClaws mascot is here as well, but today Zach is not impressed, wants solely to traverse the gusts making it difficult for me and my mother to even gain entrance into the park.

It’s World Autism Awareness Day, and not coincidentally the first of several walk-a-thons to be held around the state of New Jersey for POAC Autism Services , and it feels more like early March than spring. I am confident a breeze will not prevent anyone from participating in today’s event however, am excited that thousands of people from around the state will be donating and walking for a cause that perhaps has completely infiltrated their lives, and their hearts.

I know it has done so with mine.

As we wheel Zachary through the gates I allow myself a moment of self-congratulation, because we’re here without Justin, and for the first time, perhaps ever, I don’t feel the slightest bit guilty. He would have been upset long before we reached our destination, confused by a trajectory of roads that lead him to an open building with nothing inside that would interest him, although there will be plenty here to captivate Zach.

So, I’ve left my oldest with his father to attend this month’s autism movie.  Jeff later reported almost nobody was there for this showing, so I’m hopeful they all attended the walk. Although Zach has autism as well, the progress he has made has been so stunning I am confident he will one day be able to harness the anxieties and impulsivity that herald his brand of the disorder, in a way in which his older sibling will never be able to do. While I walk for all children on the spectrum, my primary motivation will always be for Justin. I’m sad he won’t be participating with us today, but I know he’s in a happier place.

Hopefully, Jeff is too.

As my little family of three wends its way through the crowds I spend a few moments taking it all in, the people ensconced in boldly colored t-shirts proclaiming their love for someone on the spectrum, the vendors and sponsors with their brochures and enticing crafts for little hands. I can only imagine how much planning it took to create this day, what combined effort and expertise went into an event of such magnitude.

Every face I walk by seems cheerful, from those hawking autism “accessories”, to those preventing an unhappy child from a meltdown in the stands. There is a palpable aura of peace here, of parents stripping away the confines of an often harrowing existence, and simply reveling in a day, worldwide, about us.

And with all due respect, I kindly assert we deserve it.

In what seems no time at all Zach conquers three moon bounces, a playground, and a multitude of crafts, and it’s time for the exercise portion of the day to commence. Gary Weitzen, executive director of POAC, descends to the bottom of the stadium to address the crowds, and it seems as if even those children and adults who are vocally stimming quiet a little, are loathe to miss a word.

He speaks of his gratitude to everyone who contributed both physically and financially today, to those who continue to underwrite an organization which is the largest provider of free autism trainings in the entire state. Reference was made to an impressive figure raised that almost hit the six figure mark, and may yet do so before the month is through.

Gary cheerfully reminds the crowds of all POAC Autism Services does for families who might otherwise have limited recourse to recreational activities, always for no cost. And after a stunning rendition of Christina Aguillera’s “Beautiful”, we are free to walk, to continue to take steps in the right direction to heal our children, our community, and our hearts.

I pause for a moment before we begin the sole loop my family will participate in today (a four-year-old has his limits with philanthropy), and as the sun slips over an awning that previously provided shade I am required to squint to take it all in, to view the masses moving in quiet solidarity around the circumference of the field.

There are spaces of course, but as I remain still, I notice that slowly, steadily, they are being filled, as some teams lag behind, and others proceed at a quicker pace. I know if I stood here long enough I’d behold one great, cohesive circle of commitment, seamless in its synchronicity of volunteers, parents, children, teachers and therapists, all striving mightily to fill the gaps.

And filling the gaps is exactly what POAC Autism Services has done so beautifully for well over a decade now, and I’m certain will continue to do so for many more to come.

Zach looks up at me impatiently, imploring me to return to the relative warmth of my car and take him home for lunch, and I concede to his desires. I take one last look back from the threshold of the stadium, and am rewarded by a thinning of space, of the blankness between what has been offered to our children, and what should be provided to them.

I am so grateful this organization has stepped up to help erase those voids, so appreciative of all those who made it possible to be here today. Once again, we find ourselves a part of a community who cares. And I am reminded anew of what Gary so eloquently communicated to us all at the POAC Gala, mere weeks ago, in his welcoming speech.

We are family, indeed.

Check out POAC Autism Services on their website at:  http://www.poac.net

April 23, 2012

The Show Must Go On- “Raising Autism”

Posted in Fun Stuff, Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 10:06 am by autismmommytherapist

I’m fidgeting, and as I stand in the wings with my actresses, preparing to take the stage for my autism play, I admonish myself to stop (using my own “teacher voice” no less). Gary Weitzen, Executive Director of POAC Autism Services, is wrapping up his introduction, and I’m anxious to be up there and get this show literally on the road. I take a few deep breaths, solicit the last remnants of saliva from their hiding places in my mouth, and attempt to clear my head.

I recall my “performance mantra”, which is SEL (“Slow down Jersey Girl/Emote, woman!/Look at people on occasion”), and feel my uncooperative stomach settle. I remember the trick I’m using to get through the play without bawling continuously, which is to conjure up clips with female comedians to my stressed-out brain. Melissa McCarthy during the bathroom scene in Bridesmaids easily comes to mind. Kristen Wiig holding a raw chicken on Saturday Night Live, and losing it, follows. An Amy Poehler and Tina Fey chaser in, well, anything, concludes my comedic quad.

Gary wraps up his speech, takes his seat, and I hear the strains of my brother’s music emanating from the sound board backstage. We reach the song’s first crescendo, I gently tap my friend in front of me, and we head for the stairs.

Ready or not, it’s showtime.

This past Saturday night, through the graciousness of POAC Autism Services,I had the great fortune to both act in and produce a play I wrote almost a year ago. It’s entitled “Raising Autism”, and its stories are shared through the medium of three mothers reading from faux diaries, laying their experiences with their children bare for the audience, and themselves. I came up with the idea last summer, and thinking that attempting fiction for the first time while entering middle-age might not be a realistic goal, I didn’t take it too seriously. I had a desire to create a fundraiser for POAC that could be easily replicated down the road, and an urge to divert a bit from my path of writing about my daily life with two boys on the autism spectrum, but truthfully, I didn’t really think I could do it. I’d wrench myself away from my pool every morning the boys were in summer school (the horror!) and write an entry or two, then leave it alone for a few days to write for my blog.

About six weeks into the summer I realized I had half a play, and my husband said it was pretty decent. Who knew.

Ten months, a lot of rewrites, (and a profound amount of begging for donated services later), we’re here, and I’m thrilled to say minus a few sound issues (there’s always something, it’s THEATER), the night went beautifully. My friend and mom of two on the spectrum Babette Zschiegner truly threw herself into her part, and got laughs in all the right places. My other friend and actress Bobbie Gallagher, also the mom to two with autism (I know, there’s a theme here) brought a raw emotion to a role I frankly am too chicken to play, and simply dominated the stage. Given the sniffles (and chuckles) I heard in the audience I think my slightly sarcastic college professor was well-received, even down to her anti-religious leanings and the difficulties of raising autistic twins with her partner back in the early nineties. Although I could only see a few legs from the front row (thank God for the black void of extinguished house lights), I’m told the audience was truly invested in the performance, and for that I am eternally grateful.

After all, I gave up a ton of tanning hours for this little production. It’s nice to reap some reward.

There’s one performance left this coming Saturday April 28th, at the Jersey Shore Arts Center in Ocean Grove, 8:00 PM. If you’re interested, you can purchase tickets off the POAC website www.poac.net, or pay in cash at the door (the theater seats 600, I promise you’ll get in). All proceeds go directly to POAC Autism Services. I promise, if you either have or teach a child on the autism spectrum you’ll find something in the play to relate to. If you don’t, I can guarantee you’ll learn something that evening.

And if you make it next weekend, on behalf of POAC and all the families it serves, and this mom/writer as well, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

April 8, 2012

“Raising Autism”- a POAC Autism Services Fundraiser

Posted in My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , at 7:50 pm by autismmommytherapist

Last week some staggering statistics were made public in a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a report that discussed findings regarding the prevalence of autism in fourteen states, as well as nationally. The national reports showed an increase in autism diagnosis of 78% when comparing a 2012 study to one conducted just five years before in 2007, a fact which is overwhelming in and of itself. What concerned me even more however, were the statistics for the Garden State.

According to the data, one in forty-nine children are affected in New Jersey.

For girls, one in one hundred and seventy-two are on the spectrum.

For boys, it’s one in twenty-nine.

Yes, I said one in twenty-nine.

There are a myriad of debates raging in the autism community, ranging from such topics as causes and treatments, to whether or not this increase is real, or just a result of pediatricians having access to better diagnostic tools. It may take decades to solve the more complicated puzzles. Some questions regarding the disorder may never be solved at all. But to me, one issue is perfectly clear.

All of us who love someone with an autism spectrum disorder have to do our part to help if we can.

There are hundreds of autism organizations now in existence, all of which contribute to the community at large, many with their own special niche. One that happens to be in our backyard, and has made an indelible difference in the lives of teachers, law enforcement officers, and so many Garden State families (including my own), is POAC Autism Services. POAC is located in Brick, but offers free trainings and workshops all over the state, educating those who love and/or work with individuals with autism on how best to serve them. They’re a phenomenal organization headed up by Gary Weitzen, Executive Director, and for over a decade have been responsible for improving the lives of many children and adults with autism.

Two of those lives include my own kids.

In a few weeks I will be producing my play, “Raising Autism”, which will act as a fundraiser for this wonderful agency (yes, this is a shameless plug to get my readers to buy tickets, but they’re only $10, it’s a cheap evening out). For the past few months I’ve been harassing relatives and friends, and come close to approaching strangers on the street (I’ve stopped short of that) in order to get a good turn-out. I’m hoping we are able to raise a couple of thousand dollars for POAC, enough to facilitate a few more trainings. I also hope there’s some money left over to create those all-important weekend activities for families, activities which function as a safe haven for our kids, a place where they can be who they are with beautiful abandon.

Those events are a haven where their parents can feel free to be who they are as well.

The play chronicles the lives of three very different women raising four children with autism between them, kids who fall on every part of the spectrum themselves. At times (at least I’m told), it’s a humorous look at some very difficult situations. I’ve also been told (with sodden tissues as evidence) that it will break your heart a bit, because it’s an honest look at the challenges many of us face with our children on a daily basis.

In other words, in “Raising Autism”, I say it like it is.

While I hope the play brings in a lovely chunk of money for POAC, I also hope it delivers more than just a nice bundle of funding for their endeavors. Of course I also wish it will act as a vehicle through which awareness is raised, which to me is just as important as soliciting donations. Last, I have one final wish for the play as well. To all of those attending, I hope hearing these women’s words will be both cathartic, and serve as validation for our children’s struggles, as well as our own.

It was definitely cathartic for the woman who wrote it.

“Raising Autism” debuts April 21st at Brick Township High School, and on April 28th at the Jersey Shore Arts Center. For more information please see POAC’s website at:  www.poac.net

Thank you for reading this, and hope to see you there!

February 27, 2012

POAC Autism Services Walk 2012

Posted in Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , , at 11:10 am by autismmommytherapist

“Elmo should go back to Sesame Street, Mommy”, said my youngest child as he hunched down in his stroller, trying hard to avoid the wind whipping mercilessly around Lakewood BlueClaws stadium on that early April morning last year.  Zach thought the lifesize Elmo running around greeting kids was lost, and wanted to help him find his way home.  It took some explaining for me and my mom to convince him that Elmo was fine, and we were indeed going to stay for the first of several POAC Autism Services walk-a-thons.  After we calmed him down I had the opportunity to look around, and was excited to see that thousands of people from around the state were donating their money and their time, walking for a cause that perhaps has completely infiltrated their lives, and their hearts.

I know it has done so with mine.

As my little family of three wove its way through the crowds I spent a few moments taking it all in, the people ensconced in boldly colored t-shirts proclaiming their love for someone on the spectrum, the vendors and sponsors with their brochures and enticing crafts for little hands. I could only imagine how much planning it took to create this day, what combined effort and expertise went into an event of such magnitude. Every face I walked by seemed cheerful, from those hawking autism “accessories”, to those preventing an unhappy child from a meltdown in the stands. There was a palpable aura of peace here, of parents stripping away the confines of a sometimes harrowing existence, and simply reveling in a day, worldwide, about us.

In what seemed to be no time at all Zach conquered three moon bounces, a playground, and a multitude of crafts, and it was time for the exercise portion of the day to commence. Gary Weitzen, executive director of POAC, descended to the bottom of the stadium to address the crowds, and it seemed as if even those children and adults who were vocally stimming quieted a little, were loathe to miss a word. He spoke of his gratitude to everyone who contributed both physically and financially today, to those who continue to underwrite an organization which is the largest provider of free autism trainings in the entire state. Gary cheerfully reminded the crowds of all that POAC Autism Services does for families who might otherwise have limited recourse to recreational activities, always for no cost. At the conclusion of his speech we were free to walk, to continue to take steps in the right direction to help our children, our community, and our hearts.

I paused for another moment before we began the sole loop my family would participate in that day (a four-year-old has his limits with philanthropy), and as the sun slipped over an awning that had previously provided shade I was required to squint to take it all in, to view the masses moving in quiet solidarity around the circumference of the field. There were open spaces of course, but as I remained still, I noticed that slowly, steadily, they were being filled, as some teams lagged behind, and others proceeded at a quicker pace. I knew if I stood there long enough I’d behold one great, cohesive circle of commitment, seamless in its synchronicity of volunteers, parents, children, teachers and therapists, all striving mightily to fill the gaps.

And filling the gaps is exactly what POAC has done so beautifully for well over a decade now, and I’m certain will continue to do so for many more to come.

Zach looked up at me impatiently, imploring me to return to the relative warmth of my car and take him home for lunch, and I conceded to his desires. I took one last look back from the threshold of the stadium, and was rewarded by a thinning of space, of the blankness between what has been offered to our children, and what should be provided to them. I am so grateful this organization has stepped up to help erase those voids, so appreciative of all those who made it possible to be here today. Once again, we found ourselves a part of a community who cares. And I was reminded anew of what Gary had so eloquently communicated to us all at the POAC Gala, a few weeks before, in his welcoming speech.

We are family, indeed.

If you would like to contribute or participate in any of the five POAC Autism Services walk-a-thons, please see the link below:

POAC walk-a-thons 2012

January 31, 2012

POAC Gala 2012, a Call for Contributions

Posted in Life's Little Moments tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 11:04 am by autismmommytherapist

(Gary Weitzen, Executive Director)

It’s a brisk, wintry Saturday evening. Feathers and fedoras abound for the “gangster ball” theme, drinks are flowing, and the driving beat of good tunes makes it impossible not to claim space on the dance floor. No, this is not a scene from Boardwalk Empire. It’s a sneak peak at the POAC (Parents of Autistic Children) Gala, which is celebrated annually at the Eagle Ridge Golf Club, and will take place this February 25th at 6:00 PM.

I will not being wearing a flapper dress. They are not that becoming when you’re short.

In a few weeks several hundred people will soon gather to support POAC, as they endeavor to raise money to support the multitude of programs they continually offer to those within the autistic community. These programs range from providing educational supports to parents, teachers, and school personnel, as well as offering recreational activities to children with autism and their siblings. POAC receives no state or federal funds, and its existence relies entirely upon private donations.

Most of these programs remain free to anyone who works with or loves a child with autism.

I can speak from personal experience about what POAC has meant to me, and to many families in the area. When we relocated back to New Jersey six years ago, our eldest child had only had his autism diagnosis for about a year. While living in the Washington, DC area I had struggled to find activities to do with my son. I also struggled to find free educational opportunities with which to enhance his in-home ABA program, the methodology many people use to instruct autistic children.

(Simone Tellini, Training Coordinator)

As soon as I found out about POAC I realized we immediately had access to a wonderful support group, a variety of free educational workshops, and recreational opportunities in an atmosphere that was always welcoming to my child. POAC gave me and my son an outlet on weekends, and through one of their fundraisers a few years ago at Rein Dancer Therapeutic Riding Center, they were instrumental in showing me my eldest’s love for all things equine as well.

Most importantly, POAC gave us a second family.

The price of a ticket to attend the gala is $150, but there are other ways to contribute as well. Each year at the Gala a silent auction is held, and POAC is in need of donations for this year’s fundraiser. The Gala committee also holds a gift auction and raffle as well, and POAC would greatly appreciate any contributions of business goods or services. Finally, another way to contribute would be to place an ad in the Journal that is distributed to all guests the night of the event.

Any contribution you or your company make would benefit children with autism and their families tremendously.

If you are interested in participating, donations can be brought to the POAC office, or will be picked up for you. Please contact POAC at:

1999 Route 88

Brick, NJ 08724

(732) 785-1099

Thank you so much!

December 12, 2011

POAC Gala 2012

Posted in Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , , , at 10:11 am by autismmommytherapist

(Gary Weitzen, director of POAC)

I’m always on the lookout for unique holiday gifts (especially ones I don’t have to wait in line to purchase). So, as I was waiting for Zach to finish dance class last Friday at the Rebecca Martin School of Dance I listened with some interest as the other parents were discussing their takes from Black Friday and Cyber Monday (in my house, these are my husband’s domains, as he is a wizard with a coupon). That lovely woman from the California Walmart came up (you know, the one who found it absolutely necessary to Mace people, because that of course is the Christmas spirit), as did the fabulous bargains some people had acquired. A few of their prizes led to a couple of ideas for two little boys who most certainly are on Santa’s “nice list”.

Bet you can guess who they are.

As I relaxed on the unforgiving bench, grateful for an entire forty-five minutes of sitting down AND adult conversation, one of POAC’s members and volunteers casually mentioned an incredibly creative gift idea that a high school classmate of his had offered to him and their friends. It seems this generous woman had decided to buy enough tickets for the upcoming POAC Gala to fill three tables, simultaneously donating quite a large amount of money to a wonderful autism organization, while providing a great night out for friends.

I’ve decided she’s brilliant.

As I sat and listened to her “back-story” (just a nice person, no autism connections whatsoever), I thought about what a fantastic present this would make for someone, particularly that person who has “everything”. Tickets are around $150 a pop (so clearly this gift would be more than just a stocking stuffer), but it would at once provide the recipient with a great night out, and help an incredible local autism organization continue to provide trainings, workshops, and perhaps most importantly, those recreational events that fill a void for so many autism families. I thought it was such a great idea that I’d write about it here, and attach the post I wrote about the Gala last February.

This year it will be taking place once again at the Eagle Ridge Golf Course in Lakewood, on February 25th at 7:00 PM. To purchase tickets please contact POAC (Parents of Autistic Children). Please forward this idea on to anyone who might be interested, thank you, and happy holidays!

(Me and my guy)

Eagle Ridge Golf Course is a beautiful venue, and thanks to the diligent efforts of the gala planning committee and their staff, 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.

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.

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:

www.POAC.net

April 6, 2011

POAC Walk- World Autism Awareness Day

Posted in My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , , , , at 9:16 am by autismmommytherapist

“Elmo should go back to Sesame Street, Mommy” says my youngest child as he hunches down in his stroller, in part to avoid the wind whipping mercilessly around the stadium on this early April morning, and in part because Elmo is clearly lost, and therefore should leave immediately. Buster, the Lakewood BlueClaws mascot is here as well, but today Zach is not impressed, wants solely to traverse the gusts making it difficult for me and my mother to even gain entrance into the park. It’s World Autism Awareness Day, and not coincidentally the first of four walk-a-thons to be held around the state of New Jersey for POAC Autism Services, and it feels more like early March than spring. I am confident a breeze will not prevent anyone from participating in today’s event however, am excited that thousands of people from around the state will be donating and walking for a cause that perhaps has completely enveloped their lives, and their hearts.

I know it has done so with mine.

As we wheel Zachary through the gates I allow myself a moment of self-congratulation, because we’re here without Justin, and for the first time, perhaps ever, I don’t feel the slightest bit guilty. He would have been upset long before we reached our destination, confused by a trajectory of roads that lead him to an open building with nothing inside that would interest him, although there will be plenty here to captivate Zach. So, I’ve left my oldest with his father to attend this month’s autism movie (Jeff later reported almost nobody was there for this showing, I’m hopeful they all attended the walk). Although Zach has autism as well, the progress he has made has been so stunning I am confident he will one day be able to harness the anxieties and impulsivities that herald his brand of the disorder, in a way in which his older sibling will never be able to do. While I walk for all children on the spectrum, my primary motivation will always be for Justin. I’m sad he won’t be participating with us today, but I know he’s in a happier place.

Hopefully, Jeff is too.

As my little family of three wends its way through the crowds I spend a few moments taking it all in, the people ensconced in boldly colored t-shirts proclaiming their love for someone on the spectrum, the vendors and sponsors with their brochures and enticing crafts for little hands. I can only imagine how much planning it took to create this day, what combined effort and expertise went into an event of such magnitude. Every face I walk by seems cheerful, from those hawking autism “accessories”, to those preventing an unhappy child from a meltdown in the stands. There is a palpable aura of peace here, of parents stripping away the confines of an often harrowing existence, and simply reveling in a day, worldwide, about us.

And with all due respect, I kindly assert we deserve it.

In what seems no time at all Zach conquers three moon bounces, a playground, and a multitude of crafts, and it’s time for the exercise portion of the day to commence. Gary Weitzen, executive director of POAC, descends to the bottom of the stadium to address the crowds, and it seems as if even those children and adults who are vocally stimming quiet a little, are loathe to miss a word. He speaks of his gratitude to everyone who contributed both physically and financially today, to those who continue to underwrite an organization which is the largest provider of free autism trainings in the entire state. Reference was made to an impressive figure raised that almost hit the six figure mark, and may yet do so before the month is through. Gary cheerfully reminds the crowds of all POAC does for families who might otherwise have limited recourse to recreational activities, always for no cost. And after a stunning rendition of Christina Aguillera’s “Beautiful”, we are free to walk, to continue to take steps in the right direction to heal our children, our community, and our hearts.

I pause for a moment before we begin the sole loop my family will participate in today (a four-year-old has his limits with philanthropy), and as the sun slips over an awning that previously provided shade I am required to squint to take it all in, to view the masses moving in quiet solidarity around the circumference of the field. There are spaces of course, but as I remain still, I notice that slowly, steadily, they are being filled, as some teams lag behind, and others proceed at a quicker pace. I know if I stood here long enough I’d behold one great, cohesive circle of commitment, seamless in its synchronicity of volunteers, parents, children, teachers and therapists, all striving mightily to fill the gaps.

And filling the gaps is exactly what POAC has done so beautifully for well over a decade now, and I’m certain will continue to do so for many more to come.

Zach looks up at me impatiently, imploring me to return to the relative warmth of my car and take him home for lunch, and I concede to his desires. I take one last look back from the threshold of the stadium, and am rewarded by a thinning of space, of the blankness between what has been offered to our children, and what should be provided to them. I am so grateful this organization has stepped up to help erase those voids, so appreciative of all those who made it possible to be here today. Once again, we find ourselves a part of a community who cares. And I am reminded anew of what Gary so eloquently communicated to us all at the POAC Gala, mere weeks ago, in his welcoming speech.

We are family, indeed.

POAC walk-a-thons 2011

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