Nicole A. Elliott Staff writer


BEING A TEACHER — Evan Gassner, 13, an eighth grader at Whitesboro Middle School, shows teachers how to use iPad technology and integrate its use in the classroom. Gassner was diagnosed with autism at age 2, and since a young child has received services from Upstate Cerebral Palsy and The Arc Oneida-Lewis Chapter. (Photo submitted)

AUTISM ADVOCATES — The Gassner family, of Deerfield, is speaking out against a proposed 6 percent funding cut in the state budget to non-profits that serve the disabled. They said their son Evan, 13, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2, has made great strides thanks to the local programs and services that could be on the chopping block. Pictured: sister Kaylee, 16; brother Steven, 14; brother Connor, 9; Evan; mother Kelly; and father Steve.

Evan Gassner has faced challenges in learning since he was 2-years-old.

Diagnosed with autism when just a toddler, services he has received through Upstate Cerebral Palsy and The Arc Oneida-Lewis Chapter have helped mainstream the now 13-year-old eighth grader at Whitesboro Middle School.

Mother Kelly Gassner said her son is extremely high functioning intellectually and for the most part, his challenges are transparent to others, even those who have been diagnosed with autism. Gassner said she feels none of that would have been possible without the services her son received growing up, and now she is afraid not only her family, but others, will not be fortunate to have those same resources available to them.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is calling for a 6 percent cut in funding in the state budget to services that assist the disabled. Cuts could prompt lay-offs among the hundreds of private non-profit groups state-wide, resulting in fewer services for the disabled.

"We were fortunate to have resources available to our son and our family that allowed and still allow and encourage Evan to thrive, grow, mature and become the proud young man he is today," Kelly Gassner said. "For families who are just being introduced to this diagnosis, it could all be different."

Recently Evan gave an iPad presentation at his school that taught teachers the use of the technology and how to integrate it in the classroom. But it has been a challenging journey for Evan during his school years.

Through the services of UCP, Evan received intensive at-home early intervention. By age 3, he was in an integrated preschool classroom at UCP five days a week where he received speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy. He soon developed language, the ability to write and began to independently take care of his activities of daily living. By the age of 5, Evan was ready for kindergarten, right on target. He started kindergarten at Deerfield Elementary school in a mainstream setting assisted by an Individualized Education Plan that allowed him to continue speech and occupational therapy in elementary school.

"He has flourished ever since," Kelly said of Evan. "He no longer needs occupational or speech therapy, but carries an IEP to obtain Resource Room services that helps him balance out his day. And for other bumps along the way, we have and continue to have so many agencies and people to depend on."

"He attended Saturday Friends twice a month through the Arc Oneida-Lewis chapter where he learned social skills and we, as a family, coping skills," she continued. "Also through the Arc he attended After School Connections to further enhance his social skills and knowledge. Through UCP he attended programs such as After School Friends and Executive Functioning Disorder classes to further enhance his ability to be successful in school and in life."

Evan now attends Teen Time on Friday nights at the Arc, another resource to help further his social interaction. Even social workers at UCP have helped the family cope with day-to-day transition difficulties along the way.

Evan is not the only one who has benefitted from services offered at the Arc, said Aida Mariani, director of communications and development. Another example is 75-year-old Bob Merritt whose daily routine is centered on services provided by The Arc. Merritt lives at the agency’s Bennett Street residence, works at the Arnold Avenue work site and attends the North Utica Senior Center day program. He and Evan are among the more than 2,000 men, women and children served throughout Oneida and Lewis counties who could be without integral programs and services impacting their health, well-being and integration into the community, Mariani said.

The Arc has been a partner with the state for more than 60 years, providing a range of services including residential, employment, service coordination, and programs for children to seniors. The agency is now asking that policy makers seriously consider the consequences of what the suggested budget cut of 6 percent would mean to The Arc, and the local economy.

The $120 million cut to the Office of People with Development Disabilities directed at non-profit human service agencies as proposed by the governor would have an impact that is far and wide, said Karen Korotzer, CEO of The Arc. Agencies face the potential for layoffs that may create critical staff shortages and fewer services — or no services — for people with disabilities. Robert E. Meyers, executive director of the Kelberman Center, added that the proposal comes at a time when no one can afford to sustain additional cuts in funding and staff.

Not-for-profit agencies like The Arc have already taken more than $350 million, or close to 9 percent, in cuts over the last two years, and agencies will not survive these cuts, Korotzer said. But for the Arc, their financial and programmatic innovations will help them through the tough times, she said.

"This cut will hurt and will take time for us to recover. But, we are a strong agency with a great staff and we will get through this together and continue providing quality services," Korotzer said. "It’s important to remember that the people we support at The Arc do not recover. They have life-long disabilities and are reliant on agencies like our own for a life-time of supports. Without our assistance, their health, well being and lives will be in danger. It’s time for us all to take a stand for people with disabilities."

There are 750 staff employed in Oneida and Lewis counties for The Arc. Lay-offs and the abolishment of services due to the cut would have a rippling effect on local businesses from restaurants patronized, to banks the agency does daily business with, Korotzer said.

"At this moment, and possibly over the next few days and weeks as these impending budget cuts are being negotiated by our state lawmakers, it is our hope that they do not come to fruition, or at least not to the drastic 6 percent extent," said Kathleen Hartnett, vice-president of community development at UCP. "However, our priority has always been to limit the impact of funding cuts on the children and adults we support, their families and our staff. It is unfortunate that these cuts would affect one of our community’s most vulnerable populations, but our agency has a strong foundation and continually adapts to changes in the fiscal environment. We will continue to provide premier services to the people who matter the most."

The proposed cut was first mentioned in Cuomo’s 30-day budget amendments that came out last month. Notification that came with the amendments indicated the cuts were necessary because of a $500 million budget gap created by a reduction in what the federal government is paying for care of the developmentally disabled under the Medicaid program. The 6 percent reduction is for non-profit providers overseen by the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities.

"A 6 percent budget cut to Medicaid could possibly take away the services my son still continues to use to help him stay on track," Kelly Gassner said. "For others it could mean never helping them get on track. These children and families need these funds to be sure that their loved ones have every opportunity to be all that they can be and to be sure that their loved one is being taken care of in whatever capacity they need to be."

For more information, visit The Arc’s website at www.thearcolc.org and click on the "Call to Action" link to access letters and contact information for local representatives in New York. For more information about how to get involved, call The Arc, Oneida-Lewis Chapter at 272-1529.