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Autism Support Center breaks ground

By Staff | Oct 31, 2019

A groundbreaking was held Thursday for a facility that will bolster resources for those who have loved ones on the autism spectrum in Cape Coral and Southwest Florida.

Non-profit Family Initiative Inc. broke ground on its Autism Support Center at 703 SW 4th St. in Cape Coral, surrounded by those who hold the program near and dear to their hearts.

The state-of-the art, 3,000-square-foot center, funded by state grant money and fundraising, will be a big step up to assist those on the spectrum, officials from Family Initiative Inc. said.

“Where we were, and where we have come, blows my mind,” said Family Initiative President, David Brown to all of those in attendance at Thursday’s groundbreaking. “We could not be more excited.”

The vision he and Family Initiative Vice President Anjali Dan Drie is finally coming to fruition after years of working to create a better Southwest Florida for children and families on the spectrum.

“We want a space where our families feel supported, welcomed, comfortable — where our community feels inspired to work side by side with us to create that change we need in the community and we are deeply grateful to all of you for that,” Brown said. “We are so excited, that this is one step forward, in us building something pretty special.”

Family Initiative has been serving Southwest Florida residents with an autism social skills playgroup, autism art and improv class, an autism teen hangout and more.

“Five years ago, we weren’t here,” Van Drie said. “We sat around Dave’s (Brown) kitchen table talking about, ‘What could we do to help families in our community?’ And not just clinical services, but, ‘What can we do to help support family’s quality of life and give families who have children with autism an opportunity?’ An opportunity that all other kids have.”

Their ASD playgroup, provides a warm and welcoming environment for children ages 5-16 to build social skills and make new friends on a weekly basis. They also have partnered with the Alliance for the Arts to offer an Autism Spectrum Diagnosis Art and Play Class for students ages 8-17 that focuses on social communication, engagement with peers, and working together as a group.

One parent and member of Family Initiative, Amber Zollinger, spoke about how the program has changed her and her son’s life.

“One day, by chance, I came across Family Initiative’s information — that was the beginning of a new chapter in our lives,” said Zollinger. “From the beginning, everything was different. Anjali took the time to talk to me and explained the whole process of what was to come. It felt very collaborative — more than the ‘assembly line’ I was used to.

“We then were able to join the Saturday play group. It is such a special place for our autistic children to have fun, be social and be free to live out loud. As an added bonus, the parents also have a chance to be social and meet others.

“I think I can speak for everyone who has been touched by Family Initiative and say that we are so grateful to have this huge network of families to lean on and grow with. The difference in my child is hard to put into words. They’ve changed our lives. I’m forever grateful for their love and dedication.”

Zollinger said that Brown and Van Drie go above and beyond every day for children and families, calling them “superheroes” to the Lee County community — an appropriate touch on Halloween.

“Their magical power is their insistence that every child has a chance, and that every family deserves support,” Zollinger said. “The new center is a symbol of their hard work and dedication for our autistic community. I’m so proud and honored to know them and advocate beside them, to help our local kids live life to the fullest.”

Cape Coral Councilmember and mom with a child on the spectrum, Jessica Cosden, was at the groundbreaking with daughter Hannah, 9, who was just so excited to know that a new place for her and her friends would be coming soon.

“As one of the autism moms in Cape Coral, I can tell you that we are lacking in services here,” Cosden said. “The fact that Family Initiative is going to have this nice big building here for everyone in Cape Coral that’s affected by autism — and it’s approximately 1 in 59 children now that the CDC says are affected. Cape Coral has a huge population, and this is a much needed service.”

Cosden has been involved with Family Initiative since Hannah was diagnosed when she was 6, and said that the new facility will be a welcomed addition to the non-profit’s services.

“It’s huge,” Coden said for Cape families who will be able to find resources in their own city instead of having to travel. “Family Initiative will be able to do even more. They already affect so many families across Southwest Florida, but they’ll be able to do a lot more now.”

Hannah said she loves the art camp program and is looking forward to not having to travel as far to participate in Family Initiative programs.

“The playgroup alone has been life-changing for her,” Cosden said. “She’s around like-minded peers, can be herself and see other people like her, which doesn’t happen every day. Even her little brother, who’s not autistic, goes to the play group and benefits from it, because it’s a big family.

“Any autistic family needs to have Family Initiative in their vocabulary.”

State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, Rep. Dane Eagle and Rep. Ray Rodriguez were all there in support of the groundbreaking, as they all played an instrumental role in getting funding for the new facility.

Benacquisto was moved to tears when Brown announced the building would be named after her.

“It is the greatest gift — the greatest gift of public service, to be here, in this moment, with folks who have made it happen right along side me, to see the dream of Family Initiative come to life,” Benacquisto said. “They’re the heroes — your kids are the heroes, because they push through every challenge that is presented to them. They push through it now with a smile on their face and love in their heart for the team that surrounds them. The Family Initiative team, but also your team at home. And while I think those kids are the superheroes, it doesn’t happen without mom and dad and an extended family of caregivers and people who love and want only the best for your children. So if we get to play a small part, and it is a really small part, it is the greatest gift of public service to be able to make today happen.”

Eagle gave credit to those family members who traveled to Tallahassee to be champions for their children.

“Credit to the families and staff that have been putting this together; they’re the ones who have come to Tallahassee and advocated for the need, and helping us legislators understand how important this is for our community,” Eagle said. “It’s no secret that the number of children identified on the spectrum increases year after year, and the needs associated with that and a growing city are exponential. This is a great use, I believe, of shared resources with taxpayer dollars to make sure that a need is being addressed in our city.”

For more information on Family Initiative and how to get involved, visit www.fi-florida.org.

-Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj