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About 300 autistic children and their parents visited Philadelphia Zoo

Last updated: April 13. 2014 11:17PM - 1517 Views
By Jon O'Connell joconnell@civitasmedia.com



Children and their parents board touring buses bound for the Philadelphia Zoo Sunday morning in the John Heinz Rehabilitation Center parking lot in Wilkes-Barre Township. The trip, which amassed about 300 people, was free to children living with autism and their families.
Children and their parents board touring buses bound for the Philadelphia Zoo Sunday morning in the John Heinz Rehabilitation Center parking lot in Wilkes-Barre Township. The trip, which amassed about 300 people, was free to children living with autism and their families.
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EDITORS NOTE: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the group that planned a trip for children with autism. Parents & Professionals planned the trip with help from Liv with Autism and Supporting Autism & Families Everywhere.
 
WILKES-BARRE TWP. — The sun was just starting to peek through the Sunday morning haze when scores of children with autism, accompanied by their parents and siblings, waited for their buses to carry them off to the Philadelphia Zoo.
 
Caleb Balas, 8, and his brother Lukas, 6, fidgeted in the back seat of their father Chris' car. Outside, the boys' mom, Marge Balas, a volunteer with Parents & Professionals, an autism support organization, got some last-minute instruction for keeping order at the group's lunch break with the other volunteers.
 
Caleb expressed his concern; the buses hadn't arrived yet, and he was eager to see the lions. Lukas said he was looking forward to seeing a few giraffes reach up with their long necks to nibble from the treetops.
 
Parents & Professionals, as well as Supporting Autism & Families Everywhere (SAFE) and Liv with Autism, collaborated in raising money to pay for tickets enough for 300 and five Martz Trailways buses that would take their largest group to date to the zoo's Autism Awareness Day.
 
Chris Balas said the event is a great way for families to go and relax without worrying that other patrons will ogle them.
 
Criticism is common in public places, Balas said. It's tough going to the movies sitting next to other families that just shelled out $40 to see a movie, he said. Sometimes children with autism don't understand the social expectation that they must be still inside the theater.
 
Another volunteer, Lara Gadomski, echoed Balas' sentiment. Some might attribute their children's behavior to bad parenting, not knowing they have a psychological disorder, Gadomski said.
 
“One thing that's important is this is a judgment-free zone,” Balas said of the zoo trip.
 
That the trip is free for families is an added bonus.
 
Some parents have a hard time scraping together enough cash for a trip to the zoo, Gadomski said. Often, when children with autism have yet to start school or must stay at home all day, only one parent can work, and there's little money for family adventures, she said.
 
Last year, about 250 folks showed up filling four buses to head south for a special day. That was the groups' largest yearly excursion until Sunday, Parents & Professionals co-founder Dolphus Teart said.
 
The Autism Society has dubbed April Autism Awareness Month. For the yearly trek to Philadelphia, money is raised, mostly through the Autism Golf Classic fundraiser in June, to pay for zoo tickets and the bus rentals.
 
This year, so many families signed up to go that a fourth bus was needed, and it was unclear if they could pay for it all, Teart said.
 
“So we're trying to make that effort not to leave anybody behind,” he said. “We would normally take 200. SAFE … and Liv With Autism collaborated to get that fourth bus.”
 
When the fourth bus filled quickly, Teart said they petitioned the Parents & Professionals sponsors for the fifth bus and to buy more tickets.
 
Nobody was left behind Sunday.

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