School’s Out’ party a boon for Staten Island’s special-needs community

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STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. –  “A judgment-free zone.”

This is how Christen Walsh of Eltingville describes the Families Helping Families School’s Out for Summer Party, where about 60 families of special-needs children gathered Thursday at the Hilton Garden Inn, Bloomfield, to start their summer.

Ms. Walsh was relieved that her 9-year-old daughter, who has pervasive developmental disorder, could play freely at the event without enduring unwanted scrutiny.

Families Helping Families is a Staten Island not-for-profit organization based in Eltingville that strives to support families whose children have special needs. Organized in 2008, the agency arranges activities year-round for hundreds of children, according to CEO Andrea Anna Lella of Eltingville.

Ms. Lella, the mother of three children with disabilities, advocates with the Department of Education on behalf of about 600 special-needs children. She also noted the importance of an environment where children can just be themselves, and she reflected on past struggles.

“I sit back and I watch everyone having fun,” said Ms. Lella, “And it makes me remember every time I got an invitation to a christening or a wedding for a family member, shaking with fear about how much [work] it was going to be for me.”

Activities included a deejay, who played artists such as Taylor Swift, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rihanna, as well as games such as freeze dance. Also on offer were face painting and crafts from Home Depot.

In between dancing and games, children and adults alike were treated to food such as chicken fingers and French fries, in addition to beverages. The part of the afternoon that seemed to grab the most attention, however, was an appearance by animal enthusiast Brian Lark, who brought a dozen creatures including a 10-foot Burmese python, a 150-pound Sulcata tortoise and a Polish rooster.

Also featured was a performance by Isabella Cottone, 12, Isabella Turchiano, 8, Francesca Turchiano, 4, and Alyssa Eiring, 9, of the Staten Island Dance Center’s Happy Feet special-needs program led by dance director Eileen Simoniello.

Miss Cottone, of Great Kills, has cerebral palsy and her father, Sean, serves as chief operating officer for Families Helping Families. Eight-year-old Bruce Kapp of Prince’s Bay spent the afternoon running around with his 6-year-old brother and the other children in attendance. He had his own words to share about the organization’s events.

“I think it’s really, really helpful,” said Bruce.

His mother, Maria, also shared her feelings about celebrating the end of school in such a positive environment with other families and volunteers.

“Words can’t even say how much we appreciate what they’ve done for our kids, and for the parents as well, ” said Mrs. Kapp.








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