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Bensonhurst program brings cheer to under-served families

A youth program that makes children with special needs feel accepted

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Cathy and Stephen Wolf faced every parent’s nightmare when their precious twins, Stephanie and Dominick, were diagnosed with autism. But the toughest part was yet to come.

“We had difficulty finding a recreational program for our children where they would feel accepted,” says the couple, whose fears melted away when they discovered the Regina Pacis Youth Center in Bensonhurst which offered a satisfying play and learning experience, asked no questions, and cost just $25 a year.

Soon, the Wolfs were spending their Sundays at the Bridge to Youth Recreational Program, enjoying quality family time, and living every parent’s dream of seeing their children learn appropriate play skills and have fun, while forming healthy relationships in their community.

“Everyone looks forward to Sundays now,” they add.

These days, Stephanie and Dominick, 7, play music, create art, bowl in the on-site bowling alley, and shoot hoops in the gym, while participating in speech therapy and other activities. They enjoy these activities alongside peers ranging in age from 3 to 26, who have Autism Spectrum Disorders, Sensory Integration Deficits, Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and other disabilities.

On most Sundays, the youth center jiggles with the sounds of rambunctious children jamming along on drums, singing at the top of their lungs to their favorite karaoke tune, or chattering while making edible art projects like acorns out of mini-donuts, topped with frosting and pretzels.

“Last week, they finger-painted apples, and made other art using shaving cream and Elmer’s glue,” says Susan Esposito, a program co-founder and the parent of two adult autistic children, Charles and Anthony, who have participated in the program since its inception seven years ago by volunteers and therapists, many of whom also have children with special needs.

Holidays are extra thrilling at Bridge, and Halloween was a spooktacular affair. Costumed trick-or-treaters made skeletons out of Q-tips, and enjoyed a magic show and a pizza party, in addition to the scheduled events they’ve come to expect each week.

Those expectations have been simple from the start, says Esposito, a teacher who gave up her job to look after her sons.

“Our population doesn’t get invited to parties, and they don’t have friends, so our goal was to provide that for them,” she says. “It seems that we’ve fulfilled our goal.”

Today, the center is an exciting leisure and educational facility, plus a resource center for parents who network and share information through a thriving grapevine. Group activities are interspersed with joyous celebrations, including regular birthday parties with cakes, candles, and a chorus of cheers.

The kinship formed at Bridge is heartwarming, according to the therapists who help make its magic.

“Families with special needs can come and not only feel welcome and loved, but also be a part of a community that grows together,” says music therapist Adrian Fernandez.

The smiles of his young charges are rewards in themselves, adds art therapist James Bonavita.

“I see the look of accomplishment and excitement from them,” he says. “This is worth it all.”

For Esposito and her fellow board members, the best part is providing an afternoon of fun each week for some of society’s most lovable, but under-served, members and their stressed-out families.

“We’re here for everyone, I don’t even ask what their disability is,” she says. “It is what it is.”

Bridge to Youth Recreational Program at Regina Pacis Youth Center [1258 65th St. between 12th and 13th avenues in Bensonhurst, (347) 836–9171, www.bridgetoyouthinc.org]. Sundays, 1:30–5 pm, $25 donation.

Reach reporter Shavana Abruzzo at sabruzzo@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-2529.
Updated 4:31 pm, July 9, 2018
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