SNACK Autism Awareness Series: If You Build It, They Will Come
In honor of Autism Awareness Month, SNACK* has decided to share one blog post a week to shed some light on what our organization does, where we came from, and where we're headed in the future. This first post is a summary of SNACK's origins as posted in the Villanova Magazine 2010 Winter Edition.
Jackie Galatola Ceonzo ’86 A&S and her husband, Joe Ceonzo ’85 VSB, met at Villanova and had the quintessential college experience. “Our time at Villanova was filled with fun, friends and hope,” Jackie says. “We had it all. Then we had this wonderful little boy and everything changed.” The Ceonzo’s son, Joey, was diagnosed with a lower functioning type of autism at the age of two. Autism spectrum disorders are an array of complex developmental disabilities that may impair children’s social and communication skills and can cause repetitive, often disruptive behaviors. There’s no cure for autism, but many kids’ symptoms improve with appropriate therapies.
At the time of his diagnosis, Joey didn’t speak, and he had a profound seizure disorder that lasted until he was seven. “Joey had 25-50 seizures a day,” Joe says. “We were so worried about his seizures that we didn’t realize the big challenge we faced with his autism.” The Ceonzos enrolled Joey in early intervention services but quickly became frustrated with the level of care available. They found that most programs weren’t equipped to handle the difficult behaviors associated with autism. “Joey spent so much time in school and undergoing after-school therapies that he didn’t have any fun,” Jackie says. “I knew he would stay in his own world if we let him.”
Several years ago, Joe, a finance specialist on Wall Street, had a difficult choice to make. His company wanted to transfer him to another office out of New York. Jackie and Joe didn’t want to disrupt Joey’s routine. At the same time, they wanted Joey to have a happier, more fulfilling life. So they took matters into their own hands. Joe accepted a severance package instead of a transfer, and he and Jackie used those funds to create an organization tailored for kids with autism and other special needs. Joe soon found new employment and Jackie found a new vocation. The Special Needs Activity Center for Kids (SNACK) opened in Manhattan, NY, in 2003. The Ceonzos worked with professionals to design a place where kids ages 3-18 could socialize while they learned practical skills in a warm and supportive environment. Jackie serves as SNACK’s executive director.
“Joey and many other SNACK kids suffered from isolation,” Joe says. “They weren’t invited to other kids’ homes and were turned away from many programs in the community.” For many special needs kids, SNACK is the first place that they have felt truly welcome and where they are encouraged to do things that other kids take for granted. They can participate in group and individual activities, including: swimming lessons, sports clinics, art, music, yoga, movement and drama. Staff members also take the kids on field trips.
“Kids with autism and other special needs usually can’t go to the movies because their behaviors disturb other customers,” Jackie says. “We rented an entire theater for one field trip. The kids had a great time. They could watch a movie and feel free to be themselves.” The Center has a high 2:1 student to staff ratio and limits the size of classes to make sure all kids get the attention they need. SNACK recruits highly qualified personnel who have undergone advanced training in a variety of special education fields, including speech-language therapy, applied behavior analysis (ABA), and music and art therapy. Staff throughout the Center use ABA principles to help manage behavior and provide the positive reinforcement kids need to make progress. Although the Center is a non-profit organization, parents pay fees to enroll children in SNACK programs. However, scholarships are available.
SNACK initially offered one 2-hour program one day a week. Today, the Center offers 22 hours of programming in three locations and serves 150 kids each week. Services are available after school, on weekends, during school vacations and over the summer. While SNACK focuses on special needs children, it has evolved into a caring community for kids and their families. The Center offers a family swim time, and siblings can participate in any sports activities that interest them. More importantly, all family members receive support and develop friendships with people who understand exactly what they’re going through.
“If we hadn’t done something, Joey would have spent all his spare time at home practicing being autistic,” Jackie says. Instead, Joey, who is now 14, has made extraordinary progress thanks to the services and programs he participates in at SNACK. He has friends, listens to music, and enjoys swimming and playing soccer. And he has closer relationships with his parents and his 10-year-old brother, Andrew. Joey may have been the inspiration for SNACK, but many other children have benefited from the Ceonzo’s generosity and vision. Some SNACK families looked for years for a program that would help their children learn, play and flourish. They’re grateful that SNACK is there to fill that need. “The changes I’ve seen in our kids have been amazing,” Jackie says. “SNACK grew much larger than we ever imagined,” Joe says. “It’s now a training center for special education, occupational therapy and psychology students. We get emails from all over the world from people who want to open similar programs for their kids. Our goal is to expand SNACK to other areas across the country and help even more children. We’re working on a manual to help other people set up this type of program in their communities.”
The Ceonzos admit that living with autism isn’t easy. However, they say their time at Villanova shaped the kind of parents they became and gave them the inner strength to help their son and other kids that society over overlooks. “Villanova’s emphasis on giving back stayed with us,” Jackie says. “And we were there in 1985 when Villanova beat Georgetown to win the NCAA basketball championship. It was the biggest Cinderella story in the country. No one thought we had a chance. But the team and the school never gave up. We took that lesson to heart and never considered giving up on Joey or his autism. His diagnosis was devastating, but his illnesses added a whole new and positive dimension to our lives.”