High school volunteers make Autism Families CONNECTicut a success
By Christian Mysliwiec - Staff Writer
South Windsor - posted Mon., Apr. 29, 2013
For children on the autism spectrum and for the families that care for them, finding activities can be a challenge. To meet this need, Autism Families CONNECTicut offers a series of programs for autistic children, ages 4 to 12, which encourages social interaction and improves their sports skills. The programs are made possible by the volunteer work of young adults, and at the forefront are Stephen and Jeanette Porcello of South Windsor High School.
Stephen, a junior, and Jeanette, a sophomore, were first motivated to help when they learned that the son of their cousin, Jackie Procyk, was diagnosed with autism. Jackie became involved with AFC, which started in West Hartford in 2008.
“West Hartford was renowned for the programs it offered children on the spectrum,” said Stephen and Jeannette's father, Tom Porcello, who is director of sports programming for AFC. “I said, let's do something East of the River.” The goal at the time was to bring sports and family programming to South Windsor and surrounding towns. They eventually reached that goal, and activities began at the South Windsor Community Center and the Star Hill Family Athletic Center in Tolland.
There are four main programming categories: swimming, running, play and music. Whether it is shooting hoops on the basketball court, walking or jogging laps around the indoor track, doing arts and crafts, listening to calming, live music or plunging into a pool, the programs give the children the opportunity to socialize and exercise. Parents can rest easy knowing that their child is in good hands, and can be themselves among other families who face similar obstacles. And as the children on the spectrum participate in these programs, they are encouraged and supported by peers.
For Tom, the success of the AFC programs in South Windsor and Tolland owe much to Stephen and Jeanette. “The power of what they do is not only volunteering, but they to get other kids to come,” he said.
“Without high school kids, the programs don't happen,” said Stephen, who is the program's volunteer coordinator. Since they began in South Windsor, 78 individuals have volunteered, and about 65 of them do so regularly. As a group, they have logged a total of 395 volunteer hours. “I love that stat!” he said. The majority of volunteers are high school students, but Stephen is increasing his reach-out to middle school and college students as well.
One of Jeanette's favorite activities is the music program, where she shares her musical talent with the children. When she plays her guitar, they become calm and relaxed.
Jeanette has volunteered in all the programs. She shares the story of a young girl she paired up with in the running program, who was shy and reserved at first. As they continued to spend time together, she opened up and a bond was formed. “I love forming a connection,” she said.
Both Stephen and Jeanette have had the opportunity to see how the program helps children as time goes on. “I've seen some kids for three years,” Stephen said. “You get to see them grow up and improve.” While some before-and-after success stories take time, others can happen surprisingly fast. He told the story of one boy who refused to go into the water in the swimming program. Jeanette and another volunteer worked with him, and patiently coaxed him in. “By week four, he was swimming – like, face in the water,” he said. “I just love to see that.”
Mary Bornstein, of Tolland, is the mother of Cameron who has been a participant at AFC for several years. “We try to participate in anything they have to offer because we found it so successful,” she said. “It's just such a nice group of people. Cameron feels like he can be himself and make connections with people his own age.”
While Cameron participates in the programs, his siblings, who are typical, have the chance to do activities with other siblings of autistic children as well.
“Just to see him succeed and be happy, and have people who understand, has been very good for him, and for us,” Bornstein said.
For those interested in volunteering in the next session of Autism Families CONNECTicut, contact Stephen Porcello, volunteer coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.