These Hispanic Parents Created a Support System to Help Their Kids with Special Needs

These Hispanic Parents Created a Support System to Help Their Kids with Special Needs

A group of Hispanic mothers in Sunset Park created Visión Futuro to fill gaps in support for their children, all of whom have a disability, such as autism, epilepsy, or Down syndrome–an often voiceless and vulnerable population, and one that in this case also faces language barriers. They work to ensure their children get what they deserve: a chance.

Members share the experiences they have faced as the parent of a child with disabilities, no matter how difficult they might be. One mother, for example, found out that her child with autism had been physically abused by a teacher when the child was younger.

They created a support group where none existed. It started with Laura Espinoza, 37, the founder of Visión Futuro. When her twins were first diagnosed, she didn’t even know what it meant to be autistic. Later, she found herself lost when it came to navigating the school system for her five-year-old twins. “There was nothing in Sunset Park for our children. There’s no help for children with autism,” she said in Spanish.

Espinoza had to put forth herculean efforts to find the resources her twins needed. Most resources, like therapy, schools, and workshops could all be found – deep into her native Brooklyn or at the other end of a bridge in Manhattan or the The Bronx.

Eventually, Espinoza recognized that if she organized her efforts, more children could be helped, so she created Visión Futuro with the help of City Council member Carlos Menchaca, who represents Sunset Park, Red Hook, Greenwood Heights, and parts of other neighborhoods. Menchaca hosted the first workshop in October, 2018. Eighteen mothers participated.

Since then, Visión Futuro has held multiple workshops to educate the Hispanic immigrant population in Sunset Park about disabilities, mental health, and Applied Behavior Analysis therapy, as well as sessions on how to navigate the school’s specialized instructional support. “The group is based on supporting one another,” Espinoza said.

At times, Espinoza says she felt helpless while guiding her children through the earliest days of  their mental and physical development. For example, she learned there were only two pre-kindergarten facilities that met the needs of children with disabilities near Sunset Park – one in Borough Park and another in Park Slope. Espinoza leaned more toward the school in Park Slope, but there was only one slot available, forcing her into a Sophie’s Choice scenario: as a mom, she couldn’t choose one child over the other. “For my twins, to put them in different schools, that was tough for me,” she said. She had leaned against Borough Park, but after a few weeks of enrolling her twins at the school, she felt happy with that choice.

Menchaca links Espinoza’s experience with the issue of “overcrowding” in schools and the need to build more. Several school districts are overcrowded, including schools for kids with special needs, according to a report by the City Council released in March 2018. These schools, the report notes, “encounter many challenges in terms of overcrowding as well as school planning and siting.”

Espinoza says she grew tired of institutions like the city’s Department of Education making children like hers less visible. She calls District 75, which is supposed to provide “specialized instructional support for students with significant challenges” from any borough, a “ghost district.” It does not show up on the DOE’s official school district map, so parents don’t know “where to ask for explanations,” she said.

She came to understand that she had the power to help leverage her children’s visibility and rights by using the resources already established. Menchaca’s office would assist her in connecting with the Department of Education, principals, and organizations – anyone Espinoza needed to contact to help parents help their children.

Espinoza says she realized other Hispanic parents of children with disabilities were experiencing similar difficulties. She saw that parents were unable to attend information sessions, because of distance or language barriers.

Jessica González, 27, the mother of a five year old with autism, said, “parents here, they need more workshops in Spanish about this information.” She said that Visión Futuro’s moms “have been helpful to me.”

“What Vision Futuro is doing is remarkable and inspirational,” said Menchaca. “They have identified a problem in their community and are pushing government as hard as they can to fix the blind spot.”

Espinoza said that after Visión Futuro started to host its monthly meetings, schools in the area decided to also organize their own workshops on a range of topics concerning children with disabilities. She believes she is seeing the fruits of her labor. For example, P.S. 24, the school her twins attend, is adopting new initiatives around autism that did not exist a year ago.

“We have awakened other advocates for our children, not only in our group, but aside from us,” said Espinoza.

These mothers are striving to give their kids as much of a typical childhood as they can. They have collected some of their funds selling tamales. What they raised enabled them to host workshops, create a Visión Futuro logo and T-shirts, and a projector.

Last year, the moms hosted an “Especial Christmas” event with the collaboration of the entire community. Knowing some children in the community weren’t going to find many presents under the Christmas tree, Sunset Park residents brought about 150 presents to Visión Futuro’s Christmas event, to be shared among the children. The group plans to do it again this Christmas.

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