As a child, there are few things seemingly more magical than Disney World. With its array of characters, castles and rides, the theme park is a kid’s paradise.
Thanks to a nonprofit charity and a special education teacher, a local family will experience the magic at no cost.
Meghan Schepps, a teacher at Miller Avenue School in Shoreham, nominated the Belvedere family and their 6-year-old son Anthony — one of her students — for an all-expenses-paid trip to Walt Disney World through Families in Arms, a nonprofit that strives to give families of children with autism the ability to create memories “beyond the walls of therapy.” Anthony was diagnosed with a speech delay when he was 18 months old and autism at age 2.
“I thought it’d be a really good opportunity for this family, having worked with them all year,” Ms. Schepps said. “They’re just such a wonderful family. They’re always willing to do whatever they can to help him.”
Anthony’s mother, Dawn, was shocked to learn her family had won. To break the news, Ms. Schepps, who nominated the family in July, asked Ms. Belvedere to participate in a Nov. 29 read-along at the school.
“It was a total surprise, completely,” Ms. Belvedere said. “I didn’t believe it at all, actually. When I walked in the room I knew what was going on, but I didn’t want to get excited because I was like, ‘Well, what if it’s for another family?’ ”
The family had been previously nominated by a client of Ms. Belvedere’s, but wasn’t considered for the trip since Families in Arms states the nomination must come from someone who works with the autistic child, she said.
When Ms. Belvedere saw her husband, Nick, at the school, she knew her family had won. Ms. Schepps had revealed the secret to Mr. Belvedere one day earlier so he could take time off from work to be there.
This will be the family’s first trip to Disney World.
“Once you meet Anthony, you see he’s got the sweetest soul you’ll ever meet,” Ms. Belvedere said. “He’s so excited. Every day he’s been asking me when we’re going away.”
This is the third Disney trip Families in Arms has awarded since the organization was founded in 2015, president and founder Alonna Rubin said. The vacations include airfare, park passes, meal plans and four nights at a Disney hotel. The nonprofit also provides families with a digital camera to document the trip, something made possible by donations and fundraisers.
Ms. Rubin, who books the trips herself, said she tries to personalize them for each recipient. She allows family members to customize their MagicBands — electronic bracelets that provide convenient access to many park features — and select the dates that work best for them.
After learning that Anthony loves everything underwater-related, she booked the Belvederes a room in the “Finding Nemo” family suites at Disney’s Art of Animation Resort.
“His whole room is underwater-themed and ‘Finding Nemo’-themed, so he’s going to love that,” she said. “It’s really exciting.”
Ms. Rubin formed her organization with her father, Richard Mango, to help families of children with autism make the same memories her family enjoyed while visiting Disney. Ms. Rubin’s oldest son, Jack, now 15, was diagnosed with autism at age 2.
The last time the Rubins visited the amusement park, they filmed a documentary-style video to help other families, which they hope to have completed before the first Families in Arms trip at the end of the month. Ms. Rubin explained that one of the biggest challenges for children with autism is surprises, so the Rubins filmed the entire process — from airport security to visiting characters at the park and everything in between — to help parents prepare their children for the experience.
Ms. Belvedere said she’s thankful for all the work Ms. Rubin has done for Anthony and her family, who live in Rocky Point and have two other sons, Nicholas, 14, and Kayden, 2.
“It’s an amazing organization and what they do is providing us with something that will last a lifetime,” she said.
Courtesy photo: (From left) Families in Arms co-founder Richard Mango; Shoreham-Wading River interim superintendent Neil Lederer; Families In Arms volunteers Tami Bergen and Lorraine Mango; co-founder Alonna Rubin; Miller Avenue principal Christine Carlson; Dawn, Nicholas, Anthony and Kayden Belvedere; and special education teacher Meghan Schepps.