TOWN 'N COUNTRY
When Deena and Olando Rivera found out their son, Anthony, was autistic, they experienced the stress and grief that many parents in their position face.
But more than 10 years after their son's diagnosis, the couple has learned enough about dealing with the disorder to form a nonprofit organization to help support the local autism community.
"We had this lightbulb moment when we realized that after all the fundraising we did for other organizations, we still don't have the services that we needed for our family or the other families that were in the community," said Deena Rivera, founder and chief executive of Warriors for Autism. "We decided, 'well let's try to do this ourselves.' We know what we need better than anybody. We know from our friends what they need so let's give it a shot."
Warriors for Autism provides life-enhancing services for families. It provides a wide range of activities for autistic children and helps those in the autistic community integrate into society through group meetings, education, job placement, fundraising and community events.
The need for local autism support is great, said Kelley Prince, founder and president of Behavioral Consulting of Tampa Bay, pointing out that the area has the sixth-highest number of cases of autism in the nation.
"I feel that, several years ago, the general public was not very educated on autism as a disorder," Prince said. "Although there is more awareness today, it is still a foreign idea to many."
All that the Riveras knew about autism at the time Anthony was diagnosed in 2001 was from the Academy Award-winning movie, Rain Man.
"When you think about it, Rain Man was pretty high functioning," Rivera said of the movie's autistic main character, played by Dustin Hoffman. "He could speak, he could dress himself. He was somewhat self-sufficient . . . People would wish that their child was as highly functional as a Rain Man."
Anthony, now 13, also is high functioning. But autism symptoms and severity can vary from person to person, affecting their ability to interact and communicate with others.
The Riveras said they formed Warriors for Autism as a way to provide families the services and knowledge to help them cope, which is something that didn't come to them right away.
"The big organizations like Autism Speaks were among the first ones assembling meetings, so that's what we were drawn to," Deena Rivera said. "But it's always that reminder of how lonely and devastating it was back then that draws us to help other people."
During the summer, the group has hosted weekly camps for autistic children at a local farm called Horse Power for Kids. The camps educate children about exotic animals and allows them to interact. They enjoy a variety of activities, including swimming, arts and crafts, field trips and horseback riding.
Tammy Matson, of Clearwater, said the camp has given her son, Ryan, an opportunity to play with animals, which isn't something he would normally be able to do.
"Plus, the group of kids are kids who are like him," she said.
Matson said her son has attended camps that aren't specifically for children with autism, and he would sometimes get left out "because he may act a little different and might do things a little different than the rest of the kids."
Susan Gettys, the director of education at Warriors for Autism, attests to the attention to detail autistic children need.
"It's a matter of knowing children, each individual child," Gettys said. "Deena says if you met one autistic child, you only met one autistic child."
Warriors for Autism operates on private donations and fundraisers. Donations from the New York Yankees Foundation have helped with the annual summer camps, and the couple also uses Olando Rivera's connections as a five-time world kickboxing champion to get contributions from area martial arts businesses.
"We've gone in for 10 years with autism and it's been a ride through trial and error in a lot of what we've done," Olando Rivera said. "But all we do is out of the kindness of our heart, because we want nothing but the best for our children."