Family Center For Autism Offers A Respite For Caregivers

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A Life’s WORC staffer interacts with some of the many special needs children that end up frequenting the center.
A Life’s WORC staffer interacts with some of the many special needs children that end up frequenting the center.

Life’s WORC, the Garden City nonprofit focused on improving the lives of special needs people, is basking in their 15 minutes of fame and good fortune. Thanks to Geraldo Rivera’s stint on the Celebrity Apprentice, the nonprofit will receive $725,000 in funds that will benefit its growing Family Center For Autism, which will be celebrating an official opening on April 25. According to Janet Koch, executive director for Life’s WORC, this is one of their largest donations.

“We are so fortunate, on the very first show Geraldo won us over $200,000,” said Koch. “He started
our year with a bang. Even though he didn’t win, his participation shows he has stayed committed to this population.”

Rivera, the famed journalist and broadcast veteran known for his bravado, showed a tender side on the show when discussing his journey supporting the developmentally disabled. It was more than four decades ago that Rivera, then a young journalist in his 20s, shocked the world with his expose on Willowbrook State School, revealing overcrowding, inhumane and unsanitary conditions. The story also ignited a passion to change the landscape for the developmentally disabled. When discussing his mission on the Celebrity Apprentice, he called Willowbrook “a horror in the face of humanity.”

Life’s WORC was founded in 1971 by Vicki Schneps-Yunis, whose daughter was a resident at Willowbrook. Schneps-Yunis, along with Rivera and other outraged parents, established the nonprofit to provide the developmentally disabled with the opportunity to live their lives to the fullest. They began by developing a network of group residences throughout Long Island. Today Life’s WORC offers comprehensive services to over 1,400 individuals and families in Queens, Nassau and Suffolk counties. In many ways Life’s WORC is emblematic of the “little engine that could,” beginning as a grassroots effort spurred on by little more than determination and outrage. Rivera believes the new center is an outgrowth of the tremendous progress that has been made, calling advancements for the developmentally disabled and autistic community “profound.”

Geraldo Rivera with his wife Erica gets interviewed about how much his association with Garden City’s Life’s WORC has meant to him during his career.
Geraldo Rivera with his wife Erica gets interviewed about how much his association with Garden City’s Life’s WORC has meant to him during his career.

“Life is so complicated…there is turmoil everywhere; so much bad news. But over the past several decades, though it still may not be perfect, the care the developmentally disabled has access to now is unrecognizable compared to the ’70s,” Rivera explained. “It’s like coming from the dark ages, from a mass production of care to care of the individual. To see the joy of the faces of young people at Life’s WORC is terrific. It’s an affirmation I haven’t lived in vain.”

The rising need for services for those suffering from autism set the wheels in motion for the Family Center For Autism. The center housed in a four story, 9,800-square foot building on Franklin Avenue in Garden City, is modeled similar to a YMCA, offering a variety of after-school programs along with a host of classes for preschool children through high school. According to Koch, this is the first family-centric center available to families on Long Island. The center boasts a recreational center, Internet cafe and a full range of therapeutic, educational, social, recreational and vocational programming. The center’s mission is to also provide respite for parents and siblings. On a typical afternoon, parents can take advantage of an exercise class or relax in the Internet cafe while their child and siblings can choose their own activity ranging from painting to gaming.

“These parents do a lot of waiting,” said Koch. “We wanted to offer an alternative to cramped waiting rooms. Parents of special needs kids don’t typically have the opportunity to kick back or get things done like everyone else.”

Families can purchase a membership or choose the classes and activities they’d like to participate in. Rivera’s winnings will fund scholarships and allow more families to enjoy the center. Membership fees are offset by donations. Though the center is not a clinical environment and the focus is on recreation, qualified clinical staff and certified therapists providing a ratio of three to one are always on hand.

While acknowledging there are infinite needs, Rivera praised the nonprofit’s blending of pragmatism and idealism by providing services to help challenged families and simultaneously exposing them to the possibilities in life.

Exercise classes like yoga are offered at the Life’s WORC Family Center for Autism
Exercise classes like yoga are offered at the Life’s WORC Family Center for Autism

“People are starting to realize how difficult it is keeping a youngster in the home, especially those severely afflicted specifically with autism,” said Rivera. “There is a budding recognition that the best place is in the home, but parents need tremendous support, time off and relief. These young adults may move on to working, leaving the home and having relationships.”

Elaine Bert’s 14-year-old son Christopher, a high school freshman, has been involved with Life’s WORC since he was a toddler taking art and music therapy classes. At the center, Christopher has enjoyed the theater classes and performances. He is now taking chess classes and looking forward to drumming. As an involved parent Bert has watched the idea of the center germinate to what it is today.

“The building is gorgeous,” said Bert. “My son is very social. This is a place he can hang out and be who he wants to be in that moment.”

Cooking is one of the many activities attendees at the new Life’s WORC Family Center for Autism can participate in
Cooking is one of the many activities attendees at the new Life’s WORC Family Center for Autism can participate in

For Maria Mahwinney, a mother of six, the center is a place for her 13-year-old son Maclain to be himself. Maclain enjoys cooking and art classes and he even had his own cameo on the Celebrity Apprentice during Rivera’s visit. For the Mahwinney family, Maclain’s time at the center provides what is so often missing for many children on the autism spectrum: friendship.

Rivera, along with many supporters, will be on hand for the ribbon cutting ceremony on April 25 to celebrate this accomplishment. No longer in the dark or hidden away, Life’s WORC has forged ahead to advocate for those with special needs and now this burgeoning center will provide a lifeline of support for children on the spectrum and their families.

To find out more about Life’s WORC, visit www.lifesworc.org

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