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Yonkers Public Schools Autism Program & Afya

Autism Volunteer Program

Together, we look back on an unconventional, yet fruitful school year

June 29, 2021

By: Marissa Roberge

About six years ago, Kara O’Donell and Dmitry Libman discovered the Afya Foundation’s occupational therapy program that combines clinical experiences for occupational therapy interns with non-traditional therapies for volunteers. Kara is an Occupational Therapist and Dmitry is a Physical Therapist who have both been working with the Autism Program at Yonkers Public Schools for the last 12 years.

Taken by Afya’s unique model that enables volunteers to build life skills while also taking part in altruistic activities, the pair reached out to Afya and a partnership was born. Students on the autism spectrum from Roosevelt High School and Saunders Trades and Technical High School have the opportunity to participate in the program.

Until this year, high school students would travel to the Afya Warehouse to sort materials once each week. This provided the chance for students to learn how to navigate public transportation. Once there, students would work with their teachers and staff at the warehouse to sort and package medical supplies. Each year the students collectively sort thousands of pounds of lifesaving supplies for the Afya Foundation. Students often continue volunteering with Afya after graduating and some even go on to become staff at the Afya Warehouse!

“We are so fortunate to partner with Yonkers Public Schools,” says Afya Founder and CEO Danielle Butin. “At Afya, each of our volunteers becomes a positive agent of change by participating in Afya’s daily operations. Our unique volunteer program is an opportunity for the students to give back to others while developing and maintaining the cognitive, social and physical skills necessary for living and when possible, for work.”

Covid-19 turned everyone’s world upside down but Kara and Dmitry worked to create a sense of normalcy for their students. They took advantage of Afya’s Boxes for Life program, that allowed for remote volunteering and adapted the program for their students. It allowed high schoolers who remained remote to complete tasks of sorting, counting, bagging, and labeling from home. Although schools were open to in-person learning, the Afya Warehouse remained closed to in-person volunteering. Therefore, Kara and Dmitry set up a sorting classroom in Roosevelt High School that mimicked the sorting stations at the Afya Warehouse. At Saunders High School, they had students complete tasks at their desks. This allowed the kids to remain socially distanced while sorting together in the classroom.

With the school year coming to a close, we are reflecting on an awesome year of service! Check out what parents and teachers had to say about their students’ experience participating in the program this year:

Nina Pagani, Parent, Roosevelt High School:

Daniel loves participating in the Afya program. Daniel looks forward to working on the box every week. He enjoys dumping the contents of the box out on our dining room table and laughs when things occasionally fall onto the floor. He likes organizing the different items and he also likes to read the descriptions of each item. Afya helps Daniel utilize his grouping, counting, listening, and reading skills. Working on the box has built his confidence and his interpersonal skills. We as a family look forward to Daniels continued progress while working with Afya! 

Denise Jordaens, Parent, Roosevelt High School

I enjoyed working with my daughter, Jillian, on the boxes each week. I helped her in her sorting ability as well as her counting and recording down the information on the label.  I also think that her sorting the items and closing the bags helped with her hand dexterity. 

I know that Jillian enjoyed going to Afya prior to the COVID shutdown.  It seemed like her doing the boxes at home this past school year gave her some kind of normalcy that she was used to prior to the shutdown.  I am hoping that the program will begin again in the fall.  Thank you for including Jillian in the Boxes For Life project this past school year.

Lynn Pesce Vita, Parent, Roosevelt High School

The Afya program at home has been a nice way for Mick to maintain the skills he has learned with sorting and counting.  Being 100% remote learning has been challenging and this has been a routine that he has enjoyed.  

We try to incorporate some of the counting skills he has learned such as counting by 2, 5 & 10.  Sorting and matching is a strong suit for him and it’s great to be able to put that skill into a real-life situation/task. I appreciate all you do for our kids!

Bryan Aronow, Teacher, Roosevelt High School

The Afya program at Roosevelt High School has always been an amazing experience for both students and teachers. When we were able to go to the warehouse in person, it gave our students an excellent opportunity to improve the real-life skills needed to navigate their way across the community using public transportation. When we got there, the staff was amazing at structuring activities that were meaningful to students of all levels. 

This year, our students have had modified schedules and seating. Because of this, our students have been spending almost their entire day in one classroom. Social distanced seating and plastic barriers have limited the collaboration they can do with each other in the classroom.

Having the Afya program set up right in our building has been an amazing blessing for our students this year. Not only does it give our students an opportunity for movement, but it also allows them to interact with each other and to develop real life skills. The difference in my students has been amazing, as all of them have mastered their routines and shown that they can learn and perform productive work.

Allison Galluccio, Teacher, Saunders Trades and Technical High School

My students’ experience with Afya is one of empowerment.  It allows my students to understand the nature of doing work with the purpose of helping others. It also provides the opportunity of true employment experience. Such experience includes meeting others, working collaboratively, and following rules and regulations. 

Afya provides a valuable experience to all involved.