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SARATOGA SPRINGS – The fifth annual Autism Expo and Art Exhibit will take place at the Saratoga Springs City Center on Sunday, April 10. Presented by Saratoga Bridges, this free expo will feature fun family activities as well as over 70 vendors, ranging from recreational activities, camps, therapeutic programs, education opportunities and more.
“It started five years ago when several parents who have children on the autism spectrum had this dream of wanting to do an expo that gathers providers and programs in one place,” said Patty Paduano, Director of Family Support Services at Saratoga Bridges.
Saratoga Bridges then connected with Skidmore College to make that dream a reality. Rachel Mann Ph.D., a psychology professor at Skidmore College that teaches classes on developmental disabilities, helped to initiate the Autism Expo and now, has her students helping at the event.
While the first two expos took place at Skidmore College, the expo was eventually moved to the City Center because of space.
“That first year, we had no idea how many people would be there. Parking was crazy. We thought, ‘I think we’ve hit on something here,” said Paduano, who noted that last year nearly 700 people attended the event, with even more expected this year.
A unique aspect of the Autism Expo is the art exhibit portion of the event. Adults and children on the autism spectrum have created over 70 pieces of art that will be on display. The exhibit includes all mediums of artwork, from sculptures to paintings and drawings. “Our individuals do wonderful things out in the community, and art is one of the areas we really wanted to celebrate,” said Paduano.
January Slater, a local mom and artist, became involved in the Autism Expo through her own non-profit, Creative Kidz Café. This organization provides creative outlets for children both with and without autism through art, cooking, crafts, music, and movement, all in a safe, accepting environment.
“It’s all creative based, there is no true structure. It’s there for the children’s own self-expression and it gives them the space for that.” said Slater, who has partnered with Saratoga Bridges to host some of her Creative Kidz Café classes. “I love working with Saratoga Bridges because we have the same vision and mindset, and that is whatever is good for the families and the kids. For me, the art exhibit at the expo shows how the people that are involved in it really understand the importance of expression – it’s a way for them to communicate in a completely different way that is perhaps more natural for them.”
Slater knows from a first-hand perspective how important expression and creativity is for those with autism: her nine-year old son Jackson is also on the spectrum.
“I feel like there has been a lot of negative thoughts on the word ‘autism,’ said Slater. “People fear that word. For me, it’s about diminishing that fear and creating more of a loving and accepting world for these kids, because there are so many of them.”
Often, when parents find out their child has an autism spectrum disorder, they are confused, scared, and just want answers.
“Our community has to be able to embrace every family and we also want to provide families a place to turn to. That’s what is so great about the expo,” said Paduano. “Many parents feel lost, like they don’t know where to start after getting that diagnosis. The expo is a place where you can meet other parents, pick up brochures, and talk to professionals. It’s a place where families can come and get information without having to figure it out all on their own.”
While there will be a multitude of activities and vendors for children on the spectrum at the expo, the Autism Expo is an excellent source for adults with autism as well.
“There are a lot of adults on the spectrum, and once you’re getting adult services, it can be challenging,” added Paduano. This year, the expo has added two workshops aimed at adults living with autism: “Managing Stress” and “Getting and Keeping a Job.” There will also be colleges set up, including Adirondack Community College and Sage College, to provide information about their academic programs.
For children and their families, the Autism Expo will feature engaging activities from Spotted Zebra Learning Center, a bouncy house, and crafts, such as sand art, spin art and face painting, presented by Skidmore students. Vendors will be set up around the perimeter of the expo, with the family activities in the center, allowing parents to visit the vendors at their leisure while ensuring that their children are safe.
“As a parent, you strive for your child with autism to be part of a community that wants them there and makes them feel welcome,” concluded Slater. “To actually be in a community that has that understanding and has that compassion is something I am truly grateful for.”
The Autism Expo and Art Exhibit will take place from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 10 at the Saratoga Springs City Center, located at 522 Broadway. The expo is free and everyone is welcome to attend. For more information about the expo, or if you are interested in being a volunteer, visit saratogabridges.org.
SARATOGA SPRINGS –For over 55 years, Saratoga Bridges has been providing optimum services for people with disabilities, from their residential programs to their day services and beyond. As March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, it’s important to highlight how vital Saratoga Bridges has been in integrating those with disabilities into the community. Volunteering is a big part of these efforts, and individuals at Saratoga Bridges volunteer at dozens of non-profits across the county. One of these volunteer opportunities is with the Saratoga County Office for the Aging’s Home Delivered Meals program.
“Saratoga Bridges helps us to deliver hot, nutritious meals to seniors in Saratoga County,” said Billie Jo McConkey, County Nutrition Coordinator at Office for the Aging. “With the help of the Bridges groups we are able to exist on mainly volunteers to deliver to our 39 meal routes throughout Saratoga County.”
Currently, there are 9 groups of volunteers from Saratoga Bridges that help with Home Delivered Meals –roughly 100 volunteers total. They deliver meals every day, except for weekends, holidays and during extreme weather.
“Our site managers and clients enjoy seeing the Saratoga Bridges folks,” continued McConkey. “We have a symbiotic relationship that helps both of our organizations and we are thankful for their help.”
Dacia Saville, one of the volunteers from Saratoga Bridges, enjoys making the rounds to seniors’ homes and ensuring that they have healthy meals.
“It makes me feel good,” she said. “I love to help the people, they’re so nice.”
Another volunteer, Brian Burnett, is equally glad to be a part of something that helps so many people.
“Elderly people are sometimes unable to cook and do grocery shopping,” said Burnett. “So you’re given the chance to make someone’s day.”
For Catherine Holbrook, a recipient of the Home Delivered Meals, the volunteers that deliver to her home are a godsend. Holbrook had spinal surgery several years ago, which is when she first found out about Home Delivered Meals. Holbrook lives by herself in her apartment, and finds it hard to cook on her own because of her bad eyesight.
“It makes it very easy to have a complete nourishing meal without having to struggle over the stove,” said Holbrook. “If it wasn’t for the delivered meals, I’d probably have to go to a nursing home or rely on my family more for help.”
When it comes to the volunteers from Saratoga Bridges, Holbrook loves how friendly and helpful they are.
“They’re just pleasant people, a happy group that enjoys helping me,” she said. “I’m very content with the services they give. It has helped me stay more independent and live in my apartment by myself. It’s a life-saver for me, that is for sure.”
Individuals from Saratoga Bridges not only help with the Home Delivered Meals program, they engage in volunteerism at many local charitable organizations. For example, Saville and Burnett both regularly volunteer at local animal shelters, firehouses, ambulance rescue squads, the Elks Club, and more.
“My favorite part is giving back to the community,” said Burnett. “People should volunteer because it makes you feel good about yourself.”
When they not volunteering, they like to create artwork for Saratoga Bridges’ own art gallery and studio, Creative Endeavors, as well as practice their Special Olympics events. Saville particularly likes swimming and track and field, while Burnett focuses on cross-country skiing, horseback riding, track and field, and bowling. With their wide range of hobbies, volunteer work, and activism, people at Saratoga Bridges are shattering stereotypes of people living with a disability.
“People with disabilities can do all kinds of things. There may be certain limitations, but it does not mean we’re dumb. We just have a different way of doing things,” remarked Burnett. “Disabled doesn’t mean unable.”
Volunteer opportunities also provide individuals at Saratoga Bridges the skills and training they need for employment. Saratoga Bridges has programs, such as Alpha Career Options, that help people with disabilities find jobs in the community. They can be found working at businesses such as Stewart’s, Walmart, Price Chopper and more – all places where they can be directly involved in the community, interacting and building those necessary skills.
“The individuals we support are blended into the fabric of the community. They have a variety of disabilities, and also a variety of abilities and talents,” said Pamela Polacsek, communications specialist at Saratoga Bridges. “They never fail to impress me with how profound they are and explicit in the way they express themselves. They value and appreciate what life is all about.”
Polacsek, as well as the other staff members at Saratoga Bridges, are passionate about the work they do and the individuals they serve daily.
“I work with a bunch of dedicated, compassionate staff members whose goal is to give people the opportunities to succeed,” continued Polacsek. “Giving support within our agency, as well as through these volunteer sites and businesses that employ our individuals, is encouraging, it’s enriching. I think it enhances the whole community when people are accepted for who they are.”
For more information about Saratoga Bridges, including their services and extensive charitable work, visit saratogabridges.org. For more information about Home Delivered Meals, or if interested in being a volunteer in the program, call the Office for the Aging at 518-363-4020.
Saratoga Bridges Client is a Story of Triumph
SARATOGA SPRINGS – Meet Amanda Baillargeon. She’s got a lot of things going for herself: A sunny disposition, stunning artistic talent and a future that is brighter not just because of the assistance she was able to receive, but also because of her own drive. Amanda is an example that shows that people with learning disabilities can do more than just survive – they can thrive and achieve great things.
As March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month it’s a perfect time to tell her story. A success story that exhibits how important local, not-for-profit social service organizations like Saratoga Bridges are to their client’s lives – enabling them to maximize their potential. How, in a proper nurturing environment, great things are possible. But that’s only half the story.
The other half is the spirit of people like Amanda Baillargeon. You talk to her and you can’t help but be touched and inspired.
She is an extremely talented artist, who has maximized her talents since coming to Saratoga Bridges’ Creative Endeavors facility in Ballston Spa in 2004. Amanda’s mentor was Barbara Grey. “I love it! I’m in my own world!” Amanda says with a smile, and given the chance to develop that world, Amanda has received great acclaim.
Amanda said she gets her primary inspiration from photographs and Beatrix Potter prints. Her pieces have been featured in innumerable shows and exhibits. In particular, she has been recognized as a standout at the prestigious The Arc Otsego’s Voice! Annual juried art exhibition opening, which contains works by artists with developmental disabilities from across New York State. Amanda’s watercolor painting ‘Love Birds’ was featured in Voice!5. Her piece “Reflections” was selected for the cover for Voice! 6. She had a piece included in Voice!7. At the Voice!9 Art Show, Amanda won 1st place for her painting “The Wait” and received a $300 prize. The painting sold during the opening reception for $125. Additionally, at the Creative Endeavors “Through My Eyes” juried art show, her piece “Garden of Wild Flowers” won 3rd Place and received $100.
“I’ve been her instructor for seven years, and Amanda has come incredibly far,” said Darlene Petralia, an instructor at Creative Endeavors. “Not just in her technical artwork abilities, but in how it has made a huge difference in her ability to relate and socialize with others. She has just really blossomed. I can see her developing a great following.”
Art is a cornerstone of Amanda’s life, but her success is evident in other areas of life as well. She is particularly fond of swimming, receiving two silver and one bronze medal at the Special Olympics. You can find her at the Skidmore pool each week, and participating as a Walking Buddy at Saratoga Bridges, which pairs up an individual with a staff member. Amanda’s partner is Executive Director, Valerie Muratori.
“Amanda and I have enjoyed being Walking Buddies. We motivate each other with the goal of staying fit even throughout the cold winter.” Muratori said. Amanda stated that they walk three times around the building each possible day, and with great pride noted that she has lost 30 pounds through her commitment to health and wellness. She is now a member of Saratoga Bridges’ wellness committee.
The programs at Saratoga Bridges have also given Amanda the skill set to work in various capacities. She assists Bridges’ Communications Specialist Pamela Polacsek.
“Amanda truly makes my job rewarding. “It’s a sincere privilege to provide an opportunity for Amanda to fulfill her life’s aspirations, interests and dreams. It is especially rewarding to see her accomplishing some of these goals.” Polacsek said.
Also, last July Amanda began working at TJMaxx. Since being trained and learning the requirements of the job, she works with a team as a backroom clerk to process new merchandise. “Saratoga Bridges is proud of our relationships with businesses throughout Saratoga County. We work very hard to understand each of our business partner’s expectations so the best possible employee is placed in that best position. TJ Maxx is an prime example of a longstanding, strong supporter of hiring people with disabilities and for that we are most grateful.” Polacsek comments. “Also, Amanda has been a hostess at our two of our largest fundraisers - The White Party Gala and Travers Day at the Races.”
It doesn’t end there. Amanda is a 2011 graduate of “Bridges to Skidmore,” a modified college experience, and was a student mentor in 2013-14. Participants from Saratoga Bridges are brought to the Skidmore campus on a weekly basis and are paired with a Skidmore student for the duration of the semester. At the end of each semester, a celebratory luncheon is held. Saratoga Bridges participants invite staff and family. They graduate from the program after four continuous semesters of participation. Amanda credits her parents for their support in all these areas, “They’re my best friends!” She said.
Amanda is now living in a community-based home with five women in Saratoga Springs, where she enjoys activities like cooking, going to the library, movies and shopping. But though she has come far, Amanda is not without several goals for the future.
With five women and three bathrooms in her apartment, it’s no surprise that she has a goal of getting her own apartment. Saratoga Bridges has access to six “supportive apartments” which would afford her more autonomy. Also, her big dream is “to start an art camp for kids with developmental disabilities.” She said.
Once you get to know Amanda, you learn that you wouldn’t want to bet against her accomplishing anything she has her mind set to. And that’s why the work Saratoga Bridges does is so important.
“Success feels awesome!” Amanda says.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — With a state budget that cuts $90 million from programs that benefit people with developmental disabilities, and no word from the state on how that cut will affect them, Saratoga Bridges is trapped in a limbo as they hold onto open positions and delay recruiting for mid-management jobs they were planning on adding this year.
SARATOGA COUNTY – Nonprofit organizations that provide services to those with developmental disabilities, such as local agency Saratoga Bridges, are facing a possible 6 percent cut to their New York State funding. If the state budget passes as is, the cut would amount to a loss of about $1.3 million for Saratoga Bridges.