Jason Di Clementi and Martin White have been friends ever since they met two decades ago at P.S. 77 in Park Slope, bonding over their shared love of music and membership in the school band, The Half Notes, which performed all over the city, including at Gracie Mansion.
Since then, they have continued to serve as one other’s buddies during Saturday games and trips with the Brooklyn Services for Autistic Citizens (BSAC) and now, as dinner table partners at the BSAC’s annual fundraiser luncheon, held this year on Saturday, October 25 at Gargiulo’s Restaurant in Coney Island.
“They’ve been friends since he was 14 years old,” said Jason’s mom, Maryann Di Clementi of Sunset Park, who noted that although Jason attends weekday programming at YAI, he “really looks forward to Saturdays [at BSAC].”
Martin’s mother, Eileen, agreed. “For me, they gave him a way to socialize without being stared at,” White said. “They are very caring people [and] he wasn’t conversational, but now he knows how to socialize because he’s been encouraged to.”
“Now he’s very independent and stops me from helping him to fold his clothes,” White chuckled, noting that Martin spends his week away from her Midwood home, living at a residential group home in Downtown Brooklyn. “For me, interacting with other parents and learning strategies [has been invaluable]. When he was diagnosed at four years old, we didn’t know what to do. We found the Saturday program and that really started everything.”
Jason and Martin are just two of hundreds of children and adults who benefit from the creative, physical and social programs offered by BSAC since its inception in 1978 as a summer recreational program and then since 1986 with its Saturday program.
Currently housed at P.S. 721 at 64 Avenue X, BSAC serves around 45 people per year, giving them four to five hours a day of art, gym/physical education, socialization skills workshops, laptop training and TV time – hours that also allow their caregivers, usually parents, a breather and chance to do something for themselves or focus on their other children.
“This annual fundraiser is to buy computers and other supplies that aren’t covered” by the state, which funds the program through participants’ Medicaid payments,” explained Pat Bell, administrative director at BSAC. “And it’s for family and friends to celebrate with one another.”
“When [my brother] Tommy was diagnosed, he was one in 10,000 kids with autism. Now in New York City, it’s one in 56 boys. So demand has gone up,” said Kevin Thornton, BSAC’s program director and brother to one of the organization’s earliest participants.
“We’re a very close-knit group,” Thornton continued. “You know how they say ‘it takes a village to raise a child’? Well we’re a village.”