By David Ford
“When you meet one child with autism, you know one child with autism,” is a popular phrase at the Rich Center for Autism.
In 1995, three families, the Kosars, Rubinos and the Ricchiutis, with shared interest in autism, established the Rich Center. Over 20 years later, the center continues to provide services to families who need it for their children.
Gregory Boerio, associate director for the Rich Center, started last spring. When the job opportunity presented itself, Boerio knew he couldn’t pass it up. During his time there, Boerio has been moved by their passion and dedication.
“I think here at the Rich Center we have the chance to provide individualized educational opportunities for our students,” Boerio said. “It’s not that public schools and private schools can’t provide these either, but with the specific focus on autism, we are able to provide that educational plan for them that is specific to each student.”
Boerio said the low student-to-teacher ratio is something public schools can’t do. The low ratio among teachers and students allows each instructor to provide the individual, one on one learning opportunities not offered anywhere else.
Additionally, Boerio said the Rich Center goes above and beyond to ensure each student’s needs are met, and their goals are achieved.
“Our goal is to never count anybody out. It’s our job to find the voice of every student,” Boerio said. “We support and develop them, and find out how to make life and education more accessible to them. Once you do that, you can’t count anybody out on achieving whatever life has to offer.”
For eight years, Boerio has worked as a school psychologist. He said the similarities and differences about people with autism is the beauty of it. Ever since his earliest classes, autism became a passion topic. Boerio wouldn’t trade his time at the Rich Center for anything.
Throughout its history, the Rich Center has had several success stories, like Roger and Kelly Lewis’s son Hunter, who has attended the center for 10 years.
“Here at the Rich Center, we know the teachers truly love and care about your child,” Kelly Lewis said. “We can’t imagine Hunter anywhere else.”
Despite their success with the Rich Center, life with Hunter hasn’t always been easy with the Lewis family.
“When he was little, his meltdowns would be so bad,” Kelly Lewis said. “I would just curl up and cry since there was nothing I could do for him. I felt so bad for him.”
Even though the Lewis’s had their struggles, they never shied away from taking Hunter out in public.
“I tell parents all the time ‘don’t be afraid to take your child out in public,’ because that’s how they learn and that’s how the public learns,” Kelly said. “You can’t feel anxiety about doing it.”
Early on, Roger and Kelly had their battles. Since the public wasn’t aware of their son’s autism, they would glare and make fun.
Roger shared a story that happened several years ago.
One day, he took Hunter shopping at the grocery store, where Hunter had an outburst. A couple shopping in the same aisle scoffed at him and laughed, walking away shortly after. Roger tailed the couple for nearly 15 minutes, before approaching them at the checkout.
“I told them ‘my son’s not a brat, he’s autistic, then walked away’,” Roger said.
Even though the public’s reaction has been like this, they never stopped taking Hunter out.
“Once you accept this is your life, the better off you’ll be,” Kelly said. “We’ll always love him no matter what, and we wouldn’t change a thing.”
Thanks to the Rich Center, Hunter has been able to grow and develop.
“When he first came here, he might have had 30 words of a vocabulary,” Kelly said. “Now, he’ll initiate conversation. He just loves being around people now and really loves life the way he knows it.”
For Hunter, music and football are major sources of entertainment.
“He loves music. Music is his main interest,” Kelly said. “He likes classic rock, metal, some rap … usually whatever is on the radio. But if you change one of his songs, forget it, he’ll let you know. Never change a P!NK song.”
The Lewis family has shared some incredible memories with their son, memories they wouldn’t trade anything in the world for. They try not to restrict Hunter, but instead, let him be as creative and free-spirited as he can.
Melanie Carfolo, director at the Rich Center, praised the Lewis family for the love and care they provide for Hunter.
“I think Kelly and Roger are an amazing couple, the way they care for Hunter,” Carfolo said. “On the weekends, they are a family. Some people isolate themselves, but they have done an amazing job of socializing with Hunter.”
Carfolo also expressed gratitude toward instructors at the center, contrasting their style of teaching and creativity with those of public schools.
“The best teachers are the ones that don’t try and mold your child into the perfect student,” Carfolo said. “In a public-school setting, one student is told to color a picture of a flower. He’s told to color the stem green and flower red. If he transitions into the real world, he’ll always color the stem green and the flower red because that’s all they know how to do.”
Carfolo said students are taught only one “right” way of doing things in school, but at the Rich Center, students can be as creative as they want.
She said if students want to sit and learn, they can sit and learn. If students want to stand and learn, they can stand and learn. At the Rich Center, there’s no right way for students to learn.
Carfolo said students at the Rich Center are given several programs to grow as an adult, and apply their skills to the real world.
“We try to give them the best possible education, treatment and therapies, but the idea is that, there is no Rich Center for the real world. We want them to have as many enjoyable real-world experiences as they can.”
In conjunction with the Rich Center, the Transition Options in Post Secondary Settings program (TOPS), offers students with intellectual disabilities programs educational and independent living skills.
Erika Campolito, an instructor at the Rich Center, serves as the TOPS program supervisor, commented services and activities the program offers.
“Our program is not just for students with autism. We have all kinds of students,” Campolito said. “The courses we offer focus around self-determination skills, living and career skills, financial literacy and communication advocacy.”
Campolito said the program services students ages 17 through 25 and offers several social activities to help each student develop communication skills.
She said the program has six coaches who help the students obtain internships on or around campus.
Alexis Guerireri, a senior YSU student and coach with TOPS, was recommended to apply by a friend and former student. She couldn’t have been happier with the result.
“I was able to meet the students in the program last year and I truly fell in love with each of them,” Guerrieri said. “The experience so far has been by far one of the greatest things I could have experienced. Each day, I am genuinely inspired by the students and I learn from them as they learn from me.”
Guerrieri, a human resource major, is on track to graduate in the spring. She said the experience with these students will carry with her the rest of her career.