Arlene Gagliano didn’t know who to turn to first after learning three years ago her only child was autistic.
The Wading River mom, whose 5-year-old son now attends kindergarten at Aquebogue Elementary School, said she wished there was a local network of parents who could guide her toward the proper educational services, recommend a good doctor or, most importantly, lend some emotional support.
“You just want somebody to get you on the track and give you a push,” she said.
That’s why Ms. Gagliano and a group of Riverhead School District parents have banded together to create a Special Education Parent Teacher Association in the district.
The newly formed association will host its charter meeting June 15 at Riverhead Free Library. About 50 people have expressed interest in the organization, which has met twice since March, but the group needs at least 25 members to attend the next meeting to be officially recognized. Annual membership is $5.
“They get a lot for that $5,” Ms. Gagliano said of prospective members. SEPTA members can attend lectures and workshops in addition to receiving the support of other members. The group would be insured through the Suffolk Region PTA.
Ms. Gagliano, who was nominated as SEPTA’s co-president, said the organization will be districtwide. She’s been spreading the word online and by distributing fliers to all district students.
“There’s only one SEPTA and we’re for everybody,” she said. Anyone can join the organization, but its officers must have a special needs child.
The organization will be based at Riley Avenue Elementary School, although meetings could have rotating locations, Ms. Gagliano said. Time will be split between organizational business and group discussions.
Dawn Bozuhoski, the parent of a Pulaski Street School student with Asperger’s syndrome, said she’d wanted to start a special education PTA several years ago but didn’t think there would be enough interested parents. That was until she found the Facebook group recently started by Ms. Gagliano, called Riverhead Special Advocacy Association, and knew she had to join the movement.
“I found talking to parents surpassed anything I could get from a professional,” said Ms. Bozuhoski, who was nominated to be SEPTA’s secretary. “I think this is going to be a wonderful thing for this district.”
She noted that a Riverhead-based group for parents with autistic children was formed about five years ago, though interest quickly waned. She said she’d also attended a support group through the Westhampton Beach-based Family Counseling Services, but that it couldn’t compare to an organization made up of neighbors.
“I would have very much appreciated [a local group],” she said.
Ms. Bozuhoski and Ms. Gagliano said they also hope the organization can educate teachers and community members alike on interacting with children with special needs.
“There’s these four words that keep coming up,” Ms. Gagliano said. “Education, community, support and tolerance.”