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Autism support group ‘Families in Arms’ sending 6-year-old local student and his family on first-ever Disney vacation

Anthony, 6, and his family will take a trip to Disney World in the new year thanks to an autism support organization. Courtesy photo.

An autism support organization is giving one local family a chance to create magic memories this holiday season with a trip to Disney World.

Six-year-old Shoreham-Wading River student Anthony Belvedere and his family is being sent on the Disney vacation thanks to Families in Arms, an organization that aims to help New York families of children with autism create fun memories that they say “go beyond the walls of therapy.”

“Anthony is six, and he is the sweetest soul you’ll ever meet,” says his mom Dawn Belvedere. Anthony was diagnosed with a speech problem at 18-months that led to an autism diagnosis at age two.

His speech delays cause other problems, Belvedere said, but his early diagnosis has allowed him to come a long way.

“He’s been in therapy since he was 18-months-old. He’s come such a far distance. That’s the best thing about this Disney trip – knowing that he’ll be able to understand everything that’s happening, because of how much he’s grown,” she said.

Families in Arms was founded by Alonna Rubin in honor of her son, Jack, who is autistic. After seeing how changed her own son was from a vacation at the world-famous amusement park, Rubin created the non-profit to help other families of children with autism.

“Finding the ability to break away from our strenuous world is not always an easy task. So often it feels like there is too little time and too little money,” Rubin wrote on her website. “Our Disney vacations have changed us in ways that will last forever. Now it’s our turn to help other families create memories too.”

Belvedere is an income tax preparer, and over the summer a client nominated her family to Families in Arms for the Disney trip — but the nomination wasn’t valid, since the client didn’t know Anthony personally, a requirement by the organization, Belvedere said.

“We got lucky — a second person just happened to nominate us,” Belvedere said. “Anthony’s teacher nominated us a few weeks later. Last week I got an email from her asking me to come in to school for a read-along.”

By the next week, the request had slipped her mind. She thought it was a little strange when her husband prompted her.

“He usually doesn’t ask where I’m going, because if I’m not working he knows I’m with the kids, but he asked me ‘what are you doing tomorrow? And when I told him nothing, he reminded me that Anthony’s teacher had asked that I come in,” Belvedere remembers, laughing. “He was in on it.”

Belvedere’s husband, Nick, had been contacted the day before by Anthony’s teacher, saying that their family had been selected by Families in Arms and that they wanted to surprise Belvedere with a ceremony at the school the following day.

“It was like something out of a movie,” she said. “I walked in, and everything was set up from Families in Arms. Balloons, poster boards — and there was my husband.”

Belvedere said she wasn’t immediately sure that the set-up was for them. Anthony is in a small class of students, many of whom have autism. She thought maybe the display was for one of their families.

“I remember hearing a teacher saying ‘she’s really confused.’ I didn’t want to start crying, because what if it wasn’t about us. And when I sat down, I turned to my husband and asked ‘is this really for us?’ and he said ‘yes.’”

They plan to make the trip after Christmas, and hope to stay in the Finding Nemo room at the Disney Resort.

“He loves all things underwater — sharks, whales, you name it. He’s never been to Disney,” Belvedere said. “I know he’ll love the park, but I think just getting on the plane will be fun for him. Anthony loves planes. We pass the one in Calverton and he always points at it, saying ‘me go, me go!’ He’s really excited to get on one.”

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Courtney Blasl
Courtney is a freelance photographer, videographer, web designer and writer. She is a lifelong Riverhead resident.