‘Team Tommy’ walks for Autism awareness

COOPERSTOWN – A Norwich family exceeded its goal by more than 300 percent in a fund-raising effort for the Utica-based Kelberman Center, Saturday at Glimmerglass Park in Cooperstown.

The Kelberman Center – a nonprofit organization founded in 2005 — provides services to more than 400 children and adults who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) throughout central New York.

According to the organization’s website, it provides “state-of-the-art programs and services for children and adults with ASD and their families.”

Adam Spence and his wife Michele – a pharmacist at UHS Chenango Memorial hospital and a

“an equal part in all things Tommy” – created “Team Tommy” for their son and decided to not only take part in the Cooperstown Walk for Autism on April 25, 2015, but also to raise funds to help the organization that has helped their family.

“We wanted to take part in this walk because of all that the Kelberman Center has done for our 6-year old son, who is on the autism spectrum,” said Spence.

Ten members of the Spence family attended the walk on Saturday.

Spence explained that when his son was diagnosed in 2013 the doctor urged Applied Behavior Anaylsis as the best hope of helping Tommy develop the skills that come more naturally to “neurotypical” children.

“But the doctor was based in Albany, and he had no idea what resources were available in the Norwich area,” said Spence. “That is the real dilemma for parents around here: Many services become available only after an ASD diagnosis is made, but we don’t have a “developmental pediatrician” locally.”

Spence continued that because of this, many children have to go to Syracuse or Albany in order to get a diagnosis. “But those doctors tend not to know much about the autism resources available in Norwich,” he said.

According to The Kelberman Center’s website 1 in 88 children are born with ASD.

After Tommy’s diagnosis, Spence said his family had heard of the Kelberman Center’s Promise Program, a preschool program for children with autism. “We were incredibly lucky that a spot was available for our son,” he said.

“The program is in Utica, so it was not an easy choice for us to make,” said Spence. “The county and the Norwich School District were a tremendous help with transportation, and fortunately, Tommy travels well. It was a great comfort to us to know that our son was in a place where autism was the focus.”

Once “Team Tommy” was created and a campaign was formed by the family, area community members stepped up to donate to the cause. The family set the goal of $1,000 and with community support raised more than $3,500.

Spence explained The Kelberman Center has done a tremendous amount for not only his son, but for others diagnosed with ASD. “Our hopes for this year was to show our gratitude to Kelberman by raising some money,” he said.

Tommy has now aged out of the Promise Program at The Kelberman Center, and Spence said the staff did not think Tommy would be a good fit for its kindergarten program in Utica.

“It's complicated, but every kid with autism presents a unique set of behaviors, so there is no such thing as a "one-size-fits-all" program,” said Spence. “We decided to look around, and Tommy is now in a kindergarten program at the Institute for Child Development (ICD) at Binghamton University.”

Space in these programs for children with ASD is limited, and Spence said his family was very lucky to get a spot for Tommy.

“To get Tommy in, we had a lot of help from a lot of people — including the staff at Kelberman,” said Spence. “Tommy’s preschool teacher actually drove from Utica to attend meetings at Binghamton to help us introduce Tommy to the folks at ICD.”

Spence added that Sunday, May 3, 2015, the family will be attending a Binghamton Mets game at the NYSEG Stadium in Binghamton. According to Spence, a portion of the ticket sales will go to ICD — Tommy’s current school.

For additional information on The Kelberman Center visit kelbermancenter.org. ICD's website is icd.binghamton.edu.

“Long term, we would like to figure out a way to help draw more resources to Norwich,” said Spence. “Autism isn't going away, and driving kids to Utica, Binghamton, or Oneonta isn't good enough.”

"The way people in this town show up for each other is incredible," Spence said. "Everyone has supported us from the start, and Michele and I were blown away by the generosity of the people who donated to Team Tommy for this walk."

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