Sharing in the fun

Every dream comes with its own hardships, which makes it that much better when it comes true.

Diane Gifford is the mother of an autistic boy and it has always been her dream to give him and others like him a safe place to go.

That dream came to life recently when the Boys and Girls Club of Dunkirk, located in the old St. Hyacinth School on Lake Shore Drive, opened their doors to the autistic children.

City of Dunkirk Schools Director of Special Education Marybeth Muldowney commented on how Gifford’s hard work paid off.

“It has been a great few weeks,” she said. “Diane really spearheaded the whole thing; her hard work made this come to be.”

Muldowney added the kindness of the Boys and Girls Club has been much-appreciated.

“We wanted something for our students,” she said. “Our students get excluded from a lot of things because of their disabilities; this is an activity to call their own.”

“They have their Monday night Boys and Girls Club time,” she continued. “They make friends and can be themselves.”

The group calls one 10-year-old boy named Eliseo the mayor.

“He really makes my Monday nights,” Muldowney said. “We call him the mayor because he knows everyone and everyone knows him.”

All the children are from Dunkirk schools, ranging from first to fifth grade.

SUNY Fredonia Assistant Professor of Special Education Dr. Laura Geraci got her students involved in working with the autistic children. The students don not receive any college credit for participating; they do it for real-world experience.

“It is great experience and I get a lot of positive feedback from students,” she said. “I ended up with way more student volunteers than I expected.”

Geraci explained the group can only get together for a few weeks because of lack of funds. They are working on getting grants so they can run the club all year.

“Every spring semester, I teach an Autism class. I opened this opportunity to all my students and they came in swarms,” she said. “I would love to do this year-round.”

Parents have given good feedback on the club, as well.

“They love to have an hour or so of rest,” Geraci said. “I would love to see this expand, get parents involved, and regular children to come too.”

Children love to play with a giant colorful parachute and a couple of scooters as soon as they come into the gymnasium. The gym comes to life with children running and diving under the parachute as college participants throw it up into the air. The noisy glee of children scooting up and down the gym floors laughing and enjoying each other’s company nearly drowns out the group leaders as they explain the club’s importance.

“They are experiencing everything we are reading about in class,” Geraci said. “They are here living it and that is the most powerful thing for my students.”

Parents want their children to have the same opportunities other children get without being picked on or feeling judged.

“Every parent wants them to just have fun,” Geraci said. “We did that.”

The children climbed up the steps to the stage, which is one of their favorite things to do, in order to share something with the rest of the group.

They shared everything from pet rocks, Coca Cola trucks, squeaky chickens, Mickey Mouse cars, candy, motorcycles and medals, to telling their favorite stories about scooters.

Dunkirk City Schools Occupational Therapist Stacey Lovern thinks this has been a long time coming.

“We have been working hard to plan this for over a year,” she said. “It started with a mom’s dream for her child; this was her dream.”

Gifford wanted her son to come and play.

“I wanted him to be himself and not act a certain way because he felt he would be judged,” she said. “They have all really shined.”

Physical Therapist Amy Reynolds thinks this experience has been “awesome.”

“I really love seeing all these kids play together,” she said.

Lovern believes the whole goal was to get the children to interact with their peers.

Speech Pathologist Marcy Conti pointed out how wonderful it has been to have so many people come together for these children.

“It has been neat,” she said. “It is a really nice foundation for the program.”

SUNY Fredonia graduate student Matt Beebe is one of 25 volunteers who loves participating.

“I have a great time doing it,” he said. “Love seeing them build friendships outside of school; a lot of them don’t have much interaction with others outside of home and school.”

Beebe is president of a club on campus that brings special education majors together.

“Students with autism have such different characteristics,” he said. “It is really great to watch.”

The college club is working on trying to get the children to come to campus and get everyone involved with the hands-on experience.

“Seeing what the children have to work to get through makes it really rewarding,” Beebe said.

City of Dunkirk Special Education Teacher Michelle Polvino believes this club is very beneficial to her students.

“I love this club,” she said. “Getting them to communicate more is exciting; they don’t have opportunities like this in other schools.”

Polvino wants her students to be able to interact and be social.

“This is really important,” she said. “This is a safe place for them. No one is threatening them. This is a non-threatening environment for them.”

Conti believes, as a speech therapist, socialization is important for these children to learn.

“Teaching social skills and giving them the opportunity to use those skills is great,” she said.

SUNY Fredonia junior Jessica Mothersell uses her own personal experience dealing with disabilities to help her interact with the children.

“My mother has always been deaf, so I learned from her how to handle disabilities,” she said. “This has been a really wonderful experience for me.”

Mothersell enjoys watching the children grow in their skills.

“This will help us be better teachers,” she said. “It is so heart-warming to watch these children share and see how far they have come in a few weeks.”

Mothersell calls the experience life-changing and inspirational.

“I think it is important to realize kids with disabilities, it’s not what they can’t do, it’s what they can do,” she said. “I have always been very passionate about this.”

There are three rooms: the lounge, games, and technology. The children get to choose which room they go to first and have 10 minutes to interact before heading to the next one.

“I am sad that it’s over,” Mothersell said. “It is bittersweet, but really great to have been part of this.”

Mothersell believes Beebe is a passionate leader.

“It is very fun to be part of Matt’s club,” she said. “We are lucky to have him as our leader. He is really upbeat and listens to our ideas.”

Mothersell added she knows he will be a great teacher.

Comments on this article may be sent to jwillis@observertoday.com