Joey Schweninger is a 15-year-old boy who has severe autism.
He loves animals, going to the zoo and being around water. So his parents often schedule outings around animals, at the Jacksonville Zoo or at the beach.
The ocean has a particularly soothing effect on Joey, who otherwise can be prone to outbursts, frustration and anxiety, stepfather Joe Rodgers said, recounting a recent visit to the beach.
“He walked in, his shoulders dropped, his stress dropped,” he said. “He’s super calm every time we go. We see it. Even when he’s around a pool he is this way. … Even if it’s just a creek.”
When Joey’s stress drops, so does that of his parents. They want to help other special-needs families experience such away-from-home serenity. Last year, they founded Hope Springs Florida, which is raising money to establish a vacation home for such families at a Northeast Florida beach.
“We were inspired by Joey to do this, so something would be available,” his mother, Ann O’Keeffe Rodgers, said. “They need a place that will take them. … They need a place to go. We saw a need for it.”
VACATION HOME VISION
Hope Springs currently schedules activities for special-needs families — a “sensory-friendly” showing of “The Wizard of Oz” is planned for October — and provides four-hour respites for parents.
But they wanted to do more.
Their own experience told them that hotels or resorts that not only welcome special-needs families, but can accommodate those special needs — from special diets and specially trained baby sitters to low noise and lighting — can be hard to find, the couple said. Some places try, but don’t go far enough.
So they embarked on a campaign to raise about $400,000 for the Hope Springs respite home.
The plan is to buy a home within six blocks of an area beach, fully handicapped-accessible, with four bedrooms and two bathrooms. The couple would live there — Joey lives mostly with his father in Ohio — and, for 50 weeks a year, be the staff, supplemented by a network of volunteers. For about $1,200 for a family of four for five nights, they would provide whatever vacationing special-needs families require, down to that particular kind of Cheetos a child with autism might prefer.
“We’ll come pick you up at the airport. All you have to do is get to the airport, or nearby,” said Joe Rodgers. “You don’t have to worry about getting special foods. We will have all that stuff lined up. They can finally relax a little bit. They can stay at our home, have full use of the home.”
David Childers, a neurodevelopmental pediatrician, is an associate professor and director of the UF College of Medicine-Jacksonville’s Center for Autism & Related Disabilities. He said he did not know the Rodgers’ personally, but applauded their vacation home vision.
Any kind of diagnosis, whether cancer or autism, he said, impacts not just an individual, but the entire family, and stresses marriages and siblings. Illnesses and disabilities isolate families from “what we would call routine and typical activities,” Childers said.
Any program that allows those families to participate in activities or take vacations like everyone else is a “remarkable and valuable resource,” he said.
Meanwhile, a Jacksonville-based agency is working to build up the number of autism-friendly vacations. The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards offers certification programs to travel professionals who are “knowledgeable and capable of providing support and travel-related services” to people on the autism spectrum and their families.
Such families, “who are looking to travel, are a very under-served market … so we created the autism travel certifications to meet this growing need,” said Meredith Tekin, director of major events. “Some destinations will promote that they are ‘autism-friendly,’ but that can mean many things.”
Entertainment venues, theme parks, museums, resort destinations and travel companies are among the organizations that can become Certified Autism Centers, which means they have completed extensive staff training and the property itself has been reviewed by leading autism experts. Also, the organizations have committed to ongoing training and development.
Next week, the board launches AutismTravel.com to provide not only a list of certified destinations, but also certified tools, a parent forum, tips and access to certified travel agents, among other things. Currently, the only resorts in the world to go through the certification process are the Beaches Resorts in the Caribbean Islands; the only certified Florida locations are the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum, and Colonial Quarters Tours, also in St. Augustine.
“Many families choose not to travel because of the potential anxiety or stress, which is a shame because travel can be one of the most intellectually stimulating events for individuals on the spectrum,” she said.
“There is definitely a huge need for these types of resources and we’re happy to be a part of it.”
But perhaps the most valued thing a vacation destination can offer special-needs families is beyond low lighting, Cheetos and trained travel professionals, said the Rodgers’.
That will be in full supply at the Hope Springs vacation respite home. There, Ann O’Keeffe Rodgers said, they will “accept you for who you are.
“We’re not going to be spooked.”
They get it, she said, and that is peace of mind.
Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109