EAST ORANGE, NJ — Hosting its first-ever autism awareness luncheon, the Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Performing & Fine Arts pulled out all the stops.
“I wanted to ensure that the students with autism at Tyson and their families understood that we are supporting their journey 100 percent,” literacy arts coach Fay Carr, who spearheaded the event, said. “We are working to spread autism awareness throughout our building, the school district and the community. The goal is to ensure that our students and families understand that we are all connected.”
On the day of the event, the atrium of the theater hall was transformed into a kaleidoscope of fun and bright colors. Balloons, banners and backdrops for special photography moments were displayed. The motto “We Are All Connected” was visible throughout. Dining tables were set for 80 guests.
“The luncheon initiative was made possible with fundraising efforts,” said Carr, who engaged the help of colleagues and family to create the event. “Math coach Robin Lewis and I facilitated the content for a video to highlight how we raise autism awareness in our school. The video consisted of interviews with teachers of the students of autism, child study team members, district special education administration and the school’s principal. Dance instructor Mrs. Sweet also contributed a dance segment with student honorees being MTV-like creative. Once the video and content were prepared, (media arts teacher) Jon Rafols brought the content to life.”
The event commenced with honorees seated in the 400-seat auditorium and the video.
“I think it’s important to have a month dedicated to autism awareness because it gives all students and teachers in the school an opportunity to learn more about autism. When you know about autism spectrum disorder, you are more sensitive to the students in your environment,” Director of Special Education Services Tonya Santos said in the video. “It’s my hope and dream that students with autism have the opportunity to be like any other student in the district, that they are accepted and respected, become productive citizens, and lead wonderful lives.”
Assistant Director of Special Education Services Patrice Coleman said, “My current role working with students in the district allows me to review programs, meet with parents and support teachers by providing professional development. This is still a disability we are learning about and learning how to immerse our young people within the communities and acknowledging that they all have abilities. But let me be very clear, it is a month that as a school district we celebrate, as a community we celebrate, as a state we celebrate, and even throughout the world, but, parents live this every single day. So this is not only in honor of our students, but also in honor of our parents. Our parents are doing an awesome job in servicing kids every day with autism.”
Following the presentation, participants made their way to the atrium to enjoy lunch service. The space was also flanked by a podium for poetry readings by students, family testimonials and guest speakers.
“My younger brother is on the spectrum. This is an opportunity for us to celebrate him, as well as the community, and highlight them. We’re rejoicing with where he is right now in his journey,” Marie-Esther Ahone said. “He started at Tyson in the sixth grade. He is now a high school sophomore.”
Paula Morris, the aunt of a high school junior, shared, “I’m in support of my niece. It’s very important to see her growth. I want to see what students of autism are being taught and see what the school is doing to help prepare them for their futures. We know the importance of leading that charge by making ambassadors of our students. Tyson has done a good job one-on-one with students. They do a good job. We have to treat each other with kindness and compassion.”
Special guest Nadine Wright-Arbubakrr, founder of Nassan’s Place commented, “Our students should be seen. We need to create opportunities for them. Parents, you are not alone. I know what it’s like. We can’t stop the diagnosis, but we can help the families affected by it.”
Nassan’s Place is an East Orange–based nonprofit organization that works to make a difference in the lives of children and families affected by autism in and around underserved communities by providing educational and recreational programs, social outings, and resources.
“The most rewarding thing to see is how everybody embraces differences in the building. Everybody in the building seems together, unified. No one seems different from another. The students are safe to walk the buildings, comfortable to talk to all students and staff,” Principal John English said.
Photos and Text Courtesy of Mirvetk Tonuzi