Erica Cona has taken it upon herself to start programs within Flagler County for those diagnosed with autism, and their families.
Erica Cona knows exactly where she was standing in the kitchen last June when she decided to create a summer camp for children with autism, a condition her 9-year-old son Vincent has.
“We were standing right there, when he said, ‘Mommy, why can’t I go to camp with my cousins?’ I didn’t have an answer for him. How can you explain that to a child? So I lied and I said to him, ‘the camp is filled up.’ “
Not liking having lied to her child, she began researching how to start a non-profit that would provide a summer camp for Vincent and other children with autism.
Her board of directors includes a speech language pathologist, and Timothy King who is director of ESE services for Flagler County, and formerly an assistant principal at Rymfire Elementary.
“There’s a quote floating around the internet that reads, ‘Autism is a journey I never planned, but I sure do love my tour guide.'” ERICA CONA, founder of Vincent’s Clubhouse
Children with autism can have difficulty in over-stimulating situations, making having something as simple as photos with Santa unrealistic. In December, Cona rented a room at the Palm Coast Community Center and set up 20-minute blocks for each child’s visit with Santa. Thirteen families came to have photos taken.
“I charged $25 and I was hoping to break even, but that did not occur,” she said. “The photographer donated her time, but I had to get decorations, a Santa Claus, and rent the room.”
Cona wanted parents to be able to bring their children for family photos and not have to worry about the possibility of a meltdown or tantrum.
“I don’t think a picture with Santa would have been possible without it,” Stephanie Lauber said.
Lauber’s 2-year-old son Kayne was diagnosed last September. A common challenge is being able to get daily chores, like grocery shopping, done with Kayne. If he has a tantrum, she said fellow shoppers aren’t always understanding or compassionate.
“I get not-so-nice things said to me and dirty looks,” Lauber said. “I try to explain. I have to get my groceries, too. The biggest thing is to help raise awareness for autism.”
Cona’s vision for the future is to have a free-standing building, an actual “Vincent’s Clubhouse.” The clubhouse would include a cafeteria, a sensory room and a playground. It would offer respite care, day care, summer camps, and after school care. But that is well into the future. For now she is focusing on getting a summer camp organized for this June.
Coordinating with Flagler Schools, she is filling out applications in hopes of having the camp at Bunnell or Rymfire elementary, and looking for volunteers, preferably healthcare professionals and teachers.
“I wanted to do 8 to 5, so parents don’t have to do anything,” she said. “Tim asked me, ‘How are we going to do that? Where are you getting the volunteers?’ He has to bring me down to reality from time to time.”
The plan is to have Vincent’s Clubhouse summer camp from 8 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday, June 5-16.
The camp mission is to be engaging, fun, safe and educational.
“This is not a day care,” Cona said. “My goal is to have a life enrichment program, socialization and some academics.”
The first year Cona said the camp be for elementary-age children, who are high functioning. The cost for the entire camp is $65. In the future she hopes to expand the program to serve more children. All proceeds from this camp will go to the 2018 Summer Camp, to extend the times and duration of the camp.
While Kayne Lauber is too young to participate in the camp, his mother is happy she connected with Cona on Facebook.
“This is a huge help with finding information and resources,” Lauber said. “It’s good to connect with other parents with the same issues I deal with.”
On her website, Cona said: “There’s a quote floating around the internet that reads, ‘Autism is a journey I never planned, but I sure do love my tour guide.'”
To learn more about Vincent’s Clubhouse, go to vincentsclubhouse.org.