When Bela and Sebastian were 9 and 8 respectfully, surpassing potty training, running away (Sebas was a runner) and flushing everything in the house down the toilet to watch it ‘disappear’, I spent some time thinking long and hard about the next decade, the plan for them post 22 years of age (when they would age out of the school system) and my role as a parent/life-coach of children in the autism spectrum. The results were several daunting realizations and a post-it-note on the fridge that read “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
Soon after, I enrolled Bela in UMNSU Surf Camp and hid behind a bush with my venti vanilla latte as the JAWS soundtrack played in my head while I worried that she would wander off and/or be eaten. Instead, she had a glorious week which lead to sailing camp, more swimming lessons and now as a teen, Special Olympics’ swimming competitions. When I learned about the culinary program at Easter Seals, I knew my little foodie would love it but there was much to do before she could attend. The first of which would include my allowing Bela to handle knives, prepare and cook food at home, no small feat for a child whose food I was still cutting up in little pieces for fear that she might hurt herself.
For those of you unfamiliar with the program, the Easterseals of South Florida Youth Development Culinary Arts after school and summer camp serves students ages 14 to 22 years who are neuro-divergent, some are in the Autism Spectrum while others have other developmental disabilities. Cooking was a life skill that Bela needed to learn and if she loved it then it could be a career that she could excel in as an autistic adult. Beyond my grappling with scary firsts there was also the logistical issue of getting her first from Bluelakes Elementary to Easterseals for their afterschool program, and then if accepted into the high school, getting there, which meant utilizing Miami-Dade County’s Special Transportation System (STS). Much like her first days at Surf Camp, her first few times on STS included me driving behind the STS vehicle, convinced that at any moment the driver would decide to run away to Mexico with my little girl in the backseat. That never happened, instead I met wonderful drivers whose patience that paralleled that of the finest car-pooling soccer mom.
Day by day, I kept my eye on our goals, did one scary thing and Bela became more and more independent. It was never easy, nor were our attempts always successful, but when we failed, we learned from it and tried again, and again.
This week my 15-year-old daughter, a rising sophomore at the Easterseals Youth Development Culinary Arts School will be serving lunch with her fellow classmates at the 14th Annual Champions for Children Awards Ceremony wherein Easterseals will be recognized as one of The Children’s Trust’s programs of the year. Over the years she and her fellow classmates have mastered chopping, sautéing and baking. From empanadas to macaroons, as a mom I will be eternally grateful to Chief Wendy and the amazing staff at Easterseals for patiently teaching my daughter skills that have brought her joy, hope and self-confidence. As an advocate for adults with disabilities I am grateful for the opportunities that these skills will secured for all the young adults that attend the program. Today I especially want to thank the Children’s Trust for recognizing Easterseals’ amazing work and the resources they provide to more than 1,700 families in South Florida. Nowadays as I watch Bela in her culinary uniform serve the food that she and her classmates have made with love and dedication, we look ahead to permanent job placement and specifically corporate/community partners who will recognize that our young adults while autistic are wonderful, dedicated, hardworking employees whose abilities by far surpass their disabilities.
For more information regarding the Easter Seals Youth Development Culinary Arts School, please contact 305.547.4765 or visit www.easterseals.com/southflorida.
Raquel Regalado is an attorney and a former Miami-Dade County School Board Member.