On Wednesday, in between photo shoots, I asked Vienna Laurendi Haak to tell me about the autism support group that she runs in Grand Island, New York. This is what she told me about this group that provides community for families of kids with special needs.
How and when did the autism support group get started?
We started in April of 2009 and will be celebrating our ninth anniversary. April is autism awareness month. I don’t know whether starting in April was intentional or if it was coincidental.
We started as a group of four mothers who just wanted to spend time together. We met for the first time in one of the mom’s homes to have coffee in the kitchen. We wanted to reach parents. We figured that we weren’t the only ones with kids with developmental disabilities. After discussion, we decided to form an informal support group or a peer-to-peer network. My management at the office that I work at generously offered our conference room as a free space for parents to meet. The original founding mothers are Denise Hjalmarson, Michelle Schmidt, Carrie Mesmer, and Vienna Laurendi Haak. We put out an ad through the school district and the Island Dispatch, in the Cracker Barrel.
Our first official meeting was in April of 2009.
What does the autism support group look like now?
Denise, Carrie, and Michelle still support our group but they have moved on to other passions. I am currently the only hostess of the group. We have between four and ten families that will come in. I do have people who come in from other suburbs of Erie and Niagara counties.
We were four families affected by autism. Now, we have families with children with a myriad of developmental and physical disabilities. The children and parents come from all walks of life — different financial standings and nationalities — it’s a fabulous mixed bag of community members.
What are your goals and hopes for the autism support group?
My mission ultimately is to supply information about programs that are available throughout Western New York. I try to have a guest speaker. I have three guest speakers coming for the next three months. In February, we have parent advocate Lisa Valle and New York State registered pharmacist Daniel Ryszka, who will talk about medical marijuana. In March, a speaker will talk about RPM, or rapid prompting method, which is a communications tool. In April, a speaker will discuss self-directed services through Medicaid.
What does your meeting schedule look like?
We hold meetings from September through June. We used to run year round but, in July and August, we couldn’t get visitors.
You have a passion for people with autism. How did that get started?
My introduction to autism was because my son, Austin, was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. The struggle of trying to learn about him and his challenged is what prompted me to reach out into my community to see who could help me. Austin is now sixteen. This led me to the path of developing the Grand Island Autism Support Group.
You are involved with a theater group that focuses with people with disabilities, as well. Could you tell me about that?
As a result of my networking on behalf of my support group, I was led to the Parent Network of Western New York, a nonprofit organization in Buffalo that provides formal support for people with disabilities, where I met one of the directors of People, Inc., Beth Geyer. She and I were heavily involved in a fundraiser for the Parent Network of Western New York, which involved a theatrical production called Always October. We chose October because that is developmental disabilities awareness month, and the play was exactly that. It is always October. We are surrounded by developmental disabilities and we should be aware, and it is always October.
So because of my interactions with Beth (one of the writers), I ended up by being an actress in the production. I grew significantly in a short time. We decided to open our own theater company, the Unique Theatre Company. We hire writers and actors of all abilities. Our mission is to provide community integration through the art of theater. Our next show will be in November 2018 at the Alleyway Theatre in downtown Buffalo. It will be awesome.
Click here to check out the Unique Theatre Company website.