Staten Island autism advocates rally at City Hall
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- In a budget just shy of $60 billion, $1.5 million to fund an after-school program for autistic children might seem like a drop in the bucket.
But the organizations and advocacy groups that need those precious dollars aren't taking them for granted: They gathered yesterday at City Hall to pressure legislators to keep that funding in the fiscal year 2010 budget.
"The money goes a long way. We stretch it as far as it could go," said Donna Long, executive director of G.R.A.C.E. (Getting Resources for Autistic Children's Equality) Foundation, a Staten Island nonprofit that gets about $50,000 of the funding.
All told, 22 organizations -- two of them on the Island -- receive funding through the City Council's "1 in 150" Autism Initiative Services, to provide after-school and weekend activities for autistic children. The name of the initiative, which is sponsored by the Council's pool of discretionary funds, comes from a study by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found autism affects one in every 150 children and has become more prevalent today than pediatric cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined.
The program includes sports and various activities at community centers and schools throughout the city, where, experts say, the children acquire invaluable social skills that help them to a better quality of life.
While the state and federal government provide some funding for children with more severe autism through school and health care, those parents who have children with mild cases are often on their own. There is some money earmarked for autism research in the federal stimulus package, but none for autism programs.
"This is a population that we are providing a service for that would otherwise fall through the cracks," said City Councilman David Weprin (D-Queens), who helped initiate the funding two years ago.
It does not appear the funding for the program will be cut from the upcoming budget, Weprin said, though he did add that "there are many other competing priorities."
If not for the economic downturn, advocates might be asking for more money to fund the initiative. According to Mrs. Long, G.R.A.C.E. has 20 children, ranging in age from 3 to 16 years old, in its five-days-a-week programs, but more than 50 on a waiting list. The Jewish Community Center in Sea View has another 12 in its program, with dozens more on a waiting list.
Peter N. Spencer covers city government for the Advance. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.