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Tough Guys Help Children With Disabilities

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When most people in this country think of autism, they think of Adam Lanza, who shot and killed 20 young children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012.

But Lanza, who reportedly had been diagnosed with autism, was an outlier.

The vast majority of those in the spectrum of disorders are not violent.

Anne Schneider Costigan, deputy executive director of the Foundation of the Center for Disability Services in Albany, N.Y., has worked with children, teens and adults with disabilities for nearly thirty years. The center, which was started by seven families in 1942 with a mission primarily to treat patients with cerebral palsy, has expanded over the decades to service 15,000 people with 307 types of disabilities, including autism, Asperger's Syndrome and other behavioral and physical diagnoses.

Costigan, who is in charge of fund-raising and special events at the center, recently held the organization's annual telethon, which in its 54th year raised slightly over $2 million, a record for the event.

Bolstering her efforts was the presence of several celebrities, pitcher Shawn Kelley of the New York Yankees, running back Andre Brown of the New York Giants, Stephanie Beatriz and Melissa Fumero of FOX's "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," which recently won the Golden Globe for best television comedy, and Geoff Stults and Parker Young of the new FOX show, "Enlisted."

Kelley, whose role as a reliever with the Yankees will likely be enhanced with the retirement of closer Mariano Rivera, signed autographs, posed for pictures with many of the consumers at the center and answered phones at the Jan. 26 event in Albany.

In a recent phone interview from Albany, Costigan said that Kelley, 29, was "really touched" when he met children with disabilities who were roughly the age of his two boys, aged one and three. As Costigan said, Kelley saw "children in wheelchairs, children on ventilators, children with profound disabilities."

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Shawn Kelley with 10-year-old Amanda Canaday. Photo credit: Brandon Segal.

When I spoke on the phone with Kelley, who lives in southern Tennessee during the off-season, he told me that participating in the telethon was "a humbling experience." He said that he did indeed get emotional when he saw "kids on breathing machines" and with other disabilities, kids who "didn't ask for any of that."

Perhaps even more moving for Kelley was when he then saw "how excited" the kids from the center were to meet him.

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Shawn Kelley with Avery Simon and Hattie Simon, children of longtime donors to the center. Photo credit: Dave Feiden Photography.

"I had such a good feeling in my heart," Kelley said, knowing that "maybe somebody donated a few extra bucks" to the cause of helping people with disabilities. He said he would recommend participating in the telethon to "anyone, superstar or not, athlete or not," and that he would gladly do the event again.

Wish You Were Here Productions' Andrew Levy, a sports marketing agent who arranged for Kelley to appear at the telethon, said that over the past 15 years he has sent many players to the event and he has gotten "the same reaction from the players each time," a feeling of gratitude. "It's tricky to get someone to go up to Albany in the middle of winter," he said from his office in New York City, adding that the players all end up raving about the experience.

The Center for Disability Services, which has 80 facilities in upstate New York, services people from 27 states. Some of the consumers live in the 55 residential homes in the surrounding communities.

While the center treats everyone from infants to octogenarians, many of the programs, such as Camp Spectacular, a summer camp for autistic kids, cater to children with disabilities.

Besides Kelley, Brown and cast members from the FOX shows, some of whom flew to the event from Los Angeles, Costigan also invited dignitaries to the telethon, including Congressman Paul Tonko (D-NY) and Courtney Burke, deputy secretary of health for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. In addition, Costigan auditioned local talent in the form of dancers, vocalists and novelty acts, who performed at the event, which aired on FOX23, the Albany affiliate, from noon to 7 p.m. on Jan. 26.

All of this comes at a time when President Obama, Governor Cuomo and, most notably, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio are talking with varying degrees of specificity and commitment about improving pre-K education as a measure of addressing inequities in our system.

The Center for Disability Services does have a pre-school for 3-5 year olds "with all manner of disabilities." Some of them graduate from that program and go on to "community schools," said Costigan. Others go on to the Langan School at the center, which is a school for 5-21 year olds with disabilities. There is also a school for adults, 21 and over.

While the topic of pre-school education may be the topic du jour of politicians on both sides of the aisle, it has always been a passion for Costigan.

She first became inspired to help children with disabilities when she moved from Rochester to Loudonville, N.Y., at the age of five. At that time, she met Jim, a boy with cerebral palsy. Jim and she became best friends and remain so forty-nine years later.

One of the children whose story was highlighted at the telethon was Madison Monahan of Mechanicville, N.Y., a six-year-old student with autism. Madison is enrolled in a RAAVE (Responsibly Addressing Autism Via Education) classroom at the center's Langan School.

Madison, a dark-haired girl with pony tails, has delighted her family and teachers with the progress she has made. Although her vocabulary and interests are still somewhat "limited," she has improved dramatically in her verbal skills and has a fascination with "shapes and computers," as a video put out by the center indicated.

The next time the subject of disabilities or specifically autism comes up, it would be nice if people would respond with the compassion of Shawn Kelley, and it would be even nicer if people think not of the Newtown killer but of little Madison Monahan, whose determination marks her as an extraordinary human being.