Charles Massimo and Julie Keffer live on opposite ends of Long Island and have never met, but they share a common vision: to infuse their children’s lives with happiness and purpose.
That’s a standard mission for all parents, but Massimo, of East Setauket, and Keffer, of Oyster Bay, are especially driven because their children are on the autism spectrum.
“So many people are looking for some way to have their children cared for,” said Massimo, 54, who has 16-year-old triplets, Elaina, Christopher and Steven. The two boys are on the autism spectrum. Massimo is founder of Long Island Autism Communities, a nonprofit foundation that seeks to build homes within a community that will provide services for autistic adults. “Parents want to know long after they’re gone that their child will be taken care of and it’s not the responsibility of the sibling.”
It’s the initial step in what Massimo expects will be a series of homes for autistic adults geared toward helping them live more independently in downtown communities where they can work, go grocery shopping, volunteer and run simple daily errands.
While Massimo’s focus is on a later life stage, Keffer’s PeerPals.org nonprofit works with children as young as preschoolers to foster empathy for those with disabilities. The group organizes play dates so youngsters with disabilities can form relationships with children without disabilities before they start attending school, a developmental time period that lacks many organized socialization programs, Keffer said.
Keffer, 46, who is the group’s founder and executive director, said she wants to see other autistic children benefit from strong neighborhood ties as her daughters Megan, 17, and Abbie, 15, did when they were young.
“There’s a lack of social opportunities for kids with disabilities,” Keffer said. “I don’t want anyone to get to first grade and never have had a play date. When people see that someone isn’t so different, it fosters friendship and takes the mystery out of it.”
BECOMING PART OF COMMUNITY
Autism is a neurological disorder that impairs the ability to communicate and interact socially. According to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 68 U.S. children is on the autism spectrum.
Massimo and Terri Manzione, executive director of Long Island Autism Communities, met recently with a developer in Patchogue to evaluate a site within walking distance of downtown and hope to soon announce details of a home that will have four units that will each house two adults with autism and a caregiver, and two units for non-autistic residents. It’s a critical housing need they hope to fill as New York State moves away from funding more traditional group homes toward a model where individuals must be more integrated into the community.
“Our vision is for autistic adults to have a self-directed, individualized life,” Manzione said.
Massimo, who runs CJM Wealth Management in Deer Park, plans to fund the initial effort, which he expects will cost about $2 million. If successful, the project will eventually bring him closer to his sons, who are in a residential school in Monticello.
“It’s a great program, and the boys are happy, but I began thinking ‘how am I getting them back home’ as soon as they were away,” Massimo said. “What can I do here on Long Island especially to provide [them with] a purposeful life and jobs, so they can have a life they enjoy day in and day out?”
About 60 families have expressed interest, Massimo said, adding that the nonprofit hopes to serve families of varying incomes and fund the homes with assistance from the state, residents’ families and fundraising.
Peer Pals, also a registered nonprofit, held its first organized play date in 2009. Of the 204 families that participate, 89 have children who have no disability. Group play dates typically include about 12 to 14 children and last an hour or 90 minutes, and are staffed by trained volunteers.
Play dates initially focused mainly on Nassau County, but as the group has grown more play dates are being scheduled in Suffolk, Keffer said. Locations include several Gymborees, Kidville in Wantagh, Race Stars preschool in Holtsville and the Long Island Children’s Museum in Garden City.
To spread word about the group, Peer Pals has a Facebook page and partners with four school districts — Oyster Bay-East Norwich, Cold Spring Harbor, Oceanside and South Huntington — to send home fliers about the group in pre-K and kindergarten classes.
Vivian Maltempi, 40, of Albertson, brings twins Giancarlo and Anastasia, 4, who are on the autism spectrum, to play dates and said she enjoys the socialization and opportunity to discuss things with other parents.
“It’s a judgment-free environment, too,” she said. “The [non-autistic kids’] parents are awesome, and it’s a really great setting.”
Donald Toner, 40, of Rocky Point, and his wife, Jessica, 38, drive Logan, 6, and Emma, 2, who are not on the autism spectrum, to weekend play dates. Toner said they go to at least one a month and that his children don’t realize that anyone’s different. But he said he’s learned that he needs to RSVP to hold a spot because they do fill up, usually within a day or two.
“It’s a good way for my children to be exposed to children different from them and be more accepting in later life,” said Donald Toner, whose late brother, Jonathan, had autism.
For more information
Long Island Autism Communities will receive a portion of the proceeds from sales at retailers David Yurman in Manhasset and Mitchell’s in Huntington during the second and third weeks of December, respectively.
Contact: Long Island Autism Communities, 724 Long Island Ave., Deer Park, NY 11729; 631-302-0095
Peer Pals will hold a fundraiser Sept. 10 along with the nonprofit HPS Network. A Run Through History 5K race starts at 9 a.m. at Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park in Oyster Bay, followed by a family fun run at 9:30 a.m.
Contact: Peer Pals, 123 Audrey Ave., 1st Floor, Oyster Bay, NY 11771; 516-922-4300