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From a Mother's Struggles, an Answer for Many Parents East Side after school program caters to children with special needs and their caregivers Our Town and West Side Spirit, MANHATTAN MEDIA, February 22nd, 2007 By Susan M. Sipprelle Photo by Susan M. Sipprelle

Jackie Ceonzo’s son, Joey, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of 2. He experienced multiple daily epileptic seizures until he was 7. When the seizures ceased and Joey began attending school, Ceonzo wanted him to learn to play. But there were no recreational programs available for him. He was nonverbal and not toilet trained, and the few programs that did exist could not accommodate his special needs. Four years ago, when Joey was 7, Ceonzo decided to take matters into her own hands and founded the Special Needs Activity Center for Kids, called SNACK. “I promised him that we were going to have a good time,” Ceonzo said, so she created SNACK to give him and other children with developmental disabilities, ages 2 to 12, an opportunity to have fun in a warm and friendly environment. Most of the 100 children who participate in the program have been diagnosed with autism. They have impaired ability to communicate and interact socially. They may also have behavioral issues and narrowly focused interests. The Centers for Disease Control released the results of a study this month that found that one out of every 150 children in the United States may be affected by autism, which is higher than previously published estimates of the prevalence of the disorder. SNACK, at 220 East 86th Street, offers an after school and weekend program that includes art, music, drama, movement, and games, as well as snack time. The program is also available during school vacations and over the summer. SNACK uses the pool and gym of St. Bartholomew’s Church, at 109 East 50th Street, for one-on-one swim lessons, sports skills classes, and a soccer clinic. Additionally, SNACK also coordinates occasional lectures for parents of children with special needs. “Jackie’s program is unique,” said Dr. Amy Davies Lackey. Lackey is division director at the Manhattan annex of the Hawthorne Country Day School, which educates children with disabilities. She serves as a consultant to SNACK, mostly on difficult behavioral issues, and conducts some of its parent education workshops. “The environment at SNACK sets up kids for success in making friends, engaging in social interactions, and for participating in leisure activities,” Lackey said. “Her staff is outstanding – trained and well-prepared.” Ceonzo, 42, brings the business savvy she gained as a successful executive in the textile industry and her experiences as the mother of a special needs child to SNACK. The program’s high staff-to-student ratio is designed to children with developmental disabilities make social and creative progress. SNACK, unlike most other recreational programs, will accept children with dietary restrictions and children who have toileting issues. Siblings and outside therapists are welcomed. “SNACK filled a void in the city,” said Dana Silber, mother of Jack, 9. Jack has cerebral palsy and is nonverbal, with limited fine motor skills. “Weekends are very, very hard for him. There’s nothing for him to do in an environment that’s not structured.” Jack now attends SNACK on the weekends. Ceonzo anticipates the problems that parents of children with special needs face and tries to help get them solved. For example, many children with autism find the everyday necessity of a haircut to be a traumatic ordeal. Ceonzo located a hairdresser who would give haircuts at SNACK. “SNACK is a godsend,” said Katie Sweeney, mother of Dustin, 9. Dustin has limited everyday, functional speech, but he loves Thomas the Tank Engine, and recites Thomas video scripts word for word. At SNACK, Dustin does the activities program, takes swim, and plays soccer. At a different swim program, Dustin had not made any progress. “Within three weeks of starting at SNACK,” Sweeney said, “Dustin was diving underwater.” “What I love about SNACK is that it’s as much about the parents as it is about the kids,” Sweeney said. “It creates a community.” On a Friday afternoon in February, as parents and caregivers helped the SNACK kids get into their hats and mittens and collect their backpacks, the adults made plans to meet shortly at Burger King with the children. Ceonzo beamed. “See that?” she pointed out. “They’re all going to have dinner together tonight.” Ceonzo said that SNACK has directly rewarded her in two major areas – connecting with other parents of children with developmental disabilities and helping those children, including Joey. “I see the progress Joey has made,” Ceonzo said. She and her husband also have a younger son, Andrew, who is typical. “At home, my boys play together. They’ll kick a ball around together because Joey has some skills he’s learned here.” SNACK became a nonprofit organization this month, and Ceonzo hopes that its new status will enable her to realize her dream of expanding the program to other sites in Manhattan and other cities. She receives many inquiries from parents both in the New York metropolitan area and across the country who are desperately seeking similar programs for their children with developmental disabilities. “The need,” Ceonzo said “is so great.”


Our Town