Avid autism supporter and North Bergen Public Library Assistant Victoria Cepeda has four children with autism. She’s helped host plenty of autism events at the library. This year she contacted Supervisor of Early Childhood Esther Ortega, who works for the North Bergen Preschool, to help organize start the first ever autism walk for preschoolers.
The students at the school raised money and awareness by walking on Friday, April 15 at 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
The walk included North Bergen Preschool students, McKinley Preschool students, and Kennedy Preschool students.
The money went to Autism Speaks, a New York- and Princeton-based nonprofit that raises money and awareness to support autism awareness and research.
Preschoolers, parents, and faculty walked around the Preschool track twice and took pictures before eating snacks. Teachers and parents brought in baked goods or drinks to sell for donations.
“We need to act, because 1 in 41 children in New Jersey have autism, and we can’t ignore this.” – Victoria Cepeda the North Bergen Public Library assistant.
Each teacher had his or her class design hats that were worn on the walk around the track, and teachers used speakers to play upbeat music for the walk.
Program in schools
Autism is a condition that begins in early childhood that causes problems in forming relationships and in communicating with other people, according to the definition.
According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, as of March of 2012, 1 in 46 children in New Jersey had autism.
This is the Preschool’s first year doing an autism event, but they’re not new to autism awareness, because the school was the first to have an autism program in North Bergen. The public program, Academic Classroom Educational Success, or ACES, was created about seven years ago. It now has 16 teacher aides.
The classrooms for these children are designed based on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, which means they are designed to improve social behavior to a noticeable degree.
Teacher Kimberly Wilton said, “We hope to do this every year, and hopefully get extra schools involved too. ACES is a great program that North Bergen has. We see a lot of success. It’s important for the public school sectors to follow through with this.”
Iris Atz came to see her little cousin Ronnie Atz, who is part of the ACES program, walk in the parade. “I started babysitting him all the time, because his mom is working. I always come to his important moments to take pictures,” she said, “He’s been part of the program for two years now. They learn way more than usual in there. He never really spoke before, but ever since the program he’s speaking more. He comes home to show us his homework that he does, and he repeats the alphabet and numbers to us.”
Before Ronnie went to the ACES program, Atz would show him flashcards and say the words, but he wouldn’t repeat them. She said, “He knew and understood the words, but wouldn’t say them.”
Cepeda added, “Every daycare needs to cater to special needs, and [schools] are not doing what we need to do for our children. The state needs to understand the teacher to child ratio.”
In the ACES program there’s a 2:1 teacher or teaching assistant to child ratio.
She added, “We need to act, because 1 in 41 children in New Jersey have autism, and we can’t ignore this. If they want our money, they need to find our staff with training in special needs, because it takes a special person to care for them.”
Al Tommasino, the preschool’s director of early childhood education, said, “It turned out wonderful. It’s a great opportunity for the children and teachers.”
“Every year [the school] hosts a different event for a different cause. This year we found high importance and demand in autism,” Ortega said.
They’ve done other events like a walk for cancer awareness or a trike-a-thon, where children ride around the track on their tricycles for St. Jude’s Hospital.
Mayor Nicholas Sacco attended both events that day and see his grandchild in the Preschool.
He said, “This is a new event, and it’s necessary to throw light on autism, which is common in New Jersey. This event is time and effort well spent.”