Sunday, July 27, 2008

Couple provides Temecula schools foundation on which to build efforts for autistic children

The Press-Enterprise

Three years ago, Mark and Kathy Anselmo held an auction to raise money for their autistic son's preschool class.

The event was a modest success for the parents, who were not expecting to rake in millions of dollars. Their newly formed nonprofit, Our Nicholas Foundation, came away with $20,000.

"Our initial goal was simple, a little wish list," said Mark Anselmo.

They donated funds to Ysabel Barnett Elementary School in Temecula, which had experienced cutbacks, helping to make sure the progress being made by their son, Nicholas, then 4, could continue.

Today, the foundation has given thousands of dollars to numerous Temecula schools and geared up for a first-ever Autism Summit, which will provide information on research, education and therapies to parents of autistic children.

"The summit is a whole new level of interaction for us. We're just playing quarterback," Mark Anselmo said.

On Tuesday, more than 50 vendors from the Inland area and Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties will be present. The event at Rancho Community Church is free, and child care will be provided.

Many parents in southwestern Riverside County travel far for their child's therapy. The summit is an opportunity to have all the professionals under the same roof.

When their son was diagnosed, Kathy Anselmo said, "we didn't know the next step. You're diagnosed and then what?"

Autism is the fastest-growing disability in the United States, affecting one child in 150, The spectrum disorder shows itself in abnormal social interactions, communication and behavior. No two children manifest the same symptoms, and therefore, no two children will respond the same way to solutions.

As a parent, you want to try everything for your child, she said.

Finding Their Path

"We're just two parents of an autistic child trying to find our own path," Mark Anselmo said.

Nicholas Anselmo was diagnosed at 2. By the time he was 4, he was making great strides at a special-needs preschool class at Barnett Elementary. Many students lost the one-on-one attention when budget cuts forced the district to reduce the staff, Anselmo said.

"That's the reason we started this foundation. Teachers were taking money out of their own paychecks to buy things," Kathy Anselmo said.

Nicholas, 7, will start second grade at Tony Tobin Elementary in the fall.

The Temecula Valley Unified School District said in a statement it was "extremely fortunate to have such a wonderful partnership with the Our Nicholas Foundation."

The foundation has provided more than 1,500 items to Temecula teachers.

It transformed an empty classroom at Barnett into additional space for special-needs students. At Vintage Hills Elementary, it built a sensory-integration room valued at $4,000.

It supported the expansion of Peer Buddies, a popular Erle Stanley Gardner Middle School program that assigns a handful of students to help those with special needs. It is now at a few elementary schools, and thanks to funds from the foundation, students proudly sport T-shirts and sweatshirts.

"It creates wonderful children who turn into wonderful adults," Mark Anselmo said.

The foundation has raised more than $60,000 since 2006, when it held its first auction at the Pechanga Resort & Casino.

The Anselmos have been able to satisfy every wish list received. That may change.

"Usually, we get an onslaught over the summer," Mark Anselmo said, though he predicts this year's budget cuts will make the needs greater. "I don't think it's going to be pretty."

Plus, the foundation, which has usually focused on Temecula schools, began sending fliers to Murrieta.

"Our eyes aren't aglow with huge numbers. That's why we're trying to bark up the grant tree," he said. They have received grants from Temecula and the Roripaugh Foundation.

Still Growing

Still, the Anselmos' foundation continues to grow.

It has created a board made up of local professionals and the parents of autistic children.

It began a library to lend out often-expensive research books.

It hoped to open a resource center for therapy sessions.

The Anselmos initially dreamed of opening a center to house various therapies, subsidized by the foundation and offered to parents at minimal cost. That dream quickly faded, however, because the cost to the foundation would exceed $2 million a year.

They lowered their sights to a scaled-down version. For about $250,000 a year, the foundation could provide computers and space for therapy sessions.

"We're helping schools now, but people are asking what's going to happen 10 years from now," Mark Anselmo said.

There has been an explosion of new autism cases among young children, but others are growing into adulthood now.

Though the foundation has surpassed its initial goal of donating tools to Nicholas' preschool class, the Anselmos still stick to their roots.

"This is a business we've evolved into without losing why we started," Mark Anselmo said.

No comments: