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Autism society starts ’22 by doubling board

CANFIELD — The Autism Society of Mahoning Valley added five members to its now 10-member board of directors to kick off 2022.

Joining the board this month are Meghan Brundege, Youngstown Municipal Court magistrate; Katie DeGennaro, PNC Private Bank president and senior banking adviser; Stephanie Gilchrist, regional director of The Minority Business Assistance Center at the Youngstown Business Incubator; David Moliterno, owner of Moliterno Insurance and Financial Services LLC; and Dr. Ronald Seese, developmental neurologist at the Beeghly Campus of Akron Children’s Hospital.

“We are excited to bring these five amazing professionals to serve on the board,” said Aundrea Cika Heschmeyer, chairman. “The board has a direct impact on improving programs and resources for Mahoning Valley families affected by autism. This influx of new energy will do great things.”

The ASMV was founded by local families in 1989 with the goal of supporting families in Trumbull, Mahoning, and Columbiana counties. Its mission, according to Director Robin Suzelis, is to improve the quality of life for families living with an autism diagnosis, and to bring about community change and opportunities for individuals working through life with this disability.

“We are an affiliate of the national organization, the Autism Society of America, and founders of the statewide organization, Autism Society of Ohio,” she said.

The ASMV’s efforts are centered around improving the quality of life for families affected by autism by providing information and referral to expanded assistance, hosting educational workshops to give parents the tools they need to support their child to adult, and creating activities and events that build community and friendships for the individual and those who love them. Last year it organized more than 50 events both virtual and in person, Suzelis said.

The ASMV ended 2021 with board members Heschmeyer, Sean Barron, Jodi Glass, Kelly Long and Dee McFarland. Those members were elected to the board between 2016 and 2019 and each has a very active role in the society.

“As we currently have one employee, the board assists in all areas of the organization from programming to marketing and fundraising,” Suzelis said. “We have grown over the years due to the dedication, expertise, and great amount of time that our board donates.”

She said the society has wanted to expand the board for some time and the existing board felt 2022 was the right time. With the new members, the board is now at 10 and each new member brings his or her own special talents and strengths. For example:

• Brundege is a Jackson-Milton graduate who went on to college at Youngstown State University and the University of Akron Law School. She was first introduced to autism when her son, Holden, was diagnosed at 2.

“I had so many questions, and I attended the (ASMV) meetings hoping to find some people who had traveled the same path and knew some of the answers,” Brundege said. “I was pleasantly surprised to find so many people that had the information that I was searching for and were willing to share information with me. I served on the board for a short period of time (back) then, and was recently invited to return.”

She described her son, now 9, as “the most intelligent, caring, funny and kind person” that she has ever known.

As a board member, Brundege hopes to reach families living with autism to help them navigate all the things that come with an autism diagnosis. She hopes to do that through information, learning about therapy options and providers, and connecting the families with others who are navigating the same issues.

• DeGennaro grew up in Warren and like Brundege, was first exposed to autism with the diagnosis of her son at age 5. Today son Dante is 12, but she is still on the search for ways to help him in the future.

“As my 12-year old son is growing older, I wanted to better understand what resources are out there to help us as he matures into a teen and then an adult,” DeGennaro said. “There appears to be so much assistance for young children with autism but I am not clear on what we need to be doing for him to help him succeed in high school, college and beyond. Additionally, I am constantly meeting new parents with children of similar age asking the same questions.”

DeGennaro’s vision for the future includes the desire to make the ASMV the first call for parents who suspect their child may have autism. She also wants to be able to provide a listing of every reputable provider of testing, education, therapy and job placement that could work through a partnership between employers and the ASMV.

She would like to see a program that enlists a pool of qualified babysitters, well versed in care for autistic children, so parents can get a break and rest in the knowledge their child is safe and in good hands.

She said “autism is a gift, not a death sentence.” She said when a parent first deals with a diagnosis, it can change the vision they may have had for their family. Once a person gets past that overwhelmed stage, they come to realize their child is one of the most amazing people in their life.

She said the key in autism is to get a child diagnosed early and get them the therapy they need at a young age.

As for Dante, he offered his own view on having autism: “I’m normal, just with a little something extra,” he said.

• Gilchrist grew up in Warren and her parents moved to Youngstown when she was a teenager. Her first brush with autism came when her son, Ian, was 3. “I was trying to figure out why he was not speaking as he should at the age of 3 and then some of his motor skills were delayed.”

He is now 15 and is easier to understand. She was also fortunate enough to come across the right programs early through ASMV, some that made a difference in her son’s life.

Gilchrist wants to see fair opportunities for autistic children.

“I wish that people would realize that our kids are unique and brilliant,” she said. “They deserve equality in education, recreational activities, and more, just like the next child.”

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