Fantastic Friends of WNY

Depew-based nonprofit offers place for those with special needs

By Daniel Meyer

Fantastic FriendsDebbie Cordone had a dream.

Armed with the knowledge that individuals with developmental disabilities are overlooked and often ignored, the mother of a severely autistic teenager was determined to provide anyone of any age with special needs a unique setting that offers educational and entertaining activities.

Cordone’s advocacy for her son and other individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities evolved into the establishment of Fantastic Friends of WNY, a nonprofit entity that serves unique men and women who range in age from 4 to 84.

“I believe that parents of children who have some type of disability all have something in common and that is why I was so passionate about getting this group going to offer all of us the opportunity to have access to a network of support,” said Cordone. “There’s a huge need for this. We’re still getting the word out about who we are and what we can offer these individuals and the family members who love them and want to support them.”

After spending the first year-and-a-half providing remote programming and services at various places throughout the area, the organization took a major step earlier this year when it opened its first brick-and-mortar location.

Located at 1284 French Road in Depew, the center hosts a plethora of interactive opportunities, casual gatherings and special events that include movie nights, dance parties and holiday-themed celebrations. Regularly scheduled activities include martial arts instruction, musical performances, arts and crafts and certified programming created by the D’Youville College occupational therapy department.

“We have some great partnerships and the overall support from the community has been encouraging and I hope we see it continue to grow,” said Cordone. “Some people have visited us and leave saying ‘that’s incredible’ because this is the type of place that can offer their son or daughter unlimited access to things that cater to him or her.”

Open to all

Fantastic FriendsThe first few months of Fantastic Friends of WNY’s existence involved gatherings of about 12 autistic children. It has since grown to approximately 400 participants. The center on French Road opened in January, providing approximately 1,600 square feet that has different rooms that cater to the specific needs of those who visit.

Their disabilities can include different levels of autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and traumatic brain injuries. The dedicated space in Depew offers a warm and welcoming facility that participants and their parents quickly embrace.

“Fantastic Friends gives me peace of mind because I know my child will be taken care of and treated fairly and with respect,” said Jody Kotowski, whose 19-year-old daughter Francesca regularly attends activities and special events at the center. “Incredible things are happening there every single day and I can’t say enough about Debbie and the other outstanding volunteers who make the place a special destination for us.”

A common area inside the center provides space for social, educational and therapeutic programming. There also is a sensory room that was specifically designed to develop an individual’s senses by using dimmed lights in different colors, welcoming music and sensory specific objects. Time spent in that particular room allows anyone with a sensory processing disorder to be able to sit down in a chair, remain calm and relax in a safe and fun environment.

Parents are welcome to stay or they can find comfort among other parents in a break room that provides coffee and other beverages and a chance to network.

“I enjoy being able to talk to other parents,” said Lori Kubicki, whose 13-year-old daughter Cheyenne is a familiar face at the center. “Parents of children with developmental disabilities understand what other parents are going through so it’s great to be able to sit and talk and learn about what obstacles they have overcome and we all learn from each other. It is a network of support that I am so appreciative of and I know other parents feel the same way.”

The center also hosts private birthday parties and other family gatherings that provide attendees arts and crafts supplies, interactive games and access to movies. Group homes and classes of special needs students can also reserve the center for specific events.

“We like to be creative and different and I want everyone to understand this is for people of any age with any need,” said Cordone. “We’re here to provide a safe and comfortable environment in a place of acceptance where no one will be judged.”

Expansion on horizon

Fantastic FriendsCordone says the future is bright and she knows as the number of participants increases that more space will be needed to service interested individuals with disabilities.

“We do hope to expand sometime soon because we are growing and things are going very well now that more people know where we are and what we have to offer,” said Cordone. “I’m not exactly sure if that means additional locations or establishing new partnerships. We’ll work it all out as we move forward because there is a huge need for this in our community.”

Parents appreciate the dedicated space and “no judgment” philosophy embraced by the volunteers who oversee the activities and events that take place there.

“I like that we aren’t judged or stared at and that my daughter really looks forward to going to martial arts and dances and that I have the ability to sit back and relax,” said Kubicki.

“So many people benefit from this and it’s inspiring to see some of the boys and girls who may be really shy or aren’t very confident fully embrace the social opportunities that are provided,” said Kotowski. “Socialization is important and my daughter and so many others get regular chances to interact and it’s just a really special place.”

Operating costs are covered using money raised from benefits and auctions. Last year’s inaugural “Rock the Runway” fashion show also provided additional funds and plans are already under way for the second annual fashion show that will take place in November.

“Males and females aged 13 to adults are our primary focus but as I said anyone is welcome to come and see what we are all about,” said Cordone.

“These socialization options will continue to grow as we welcome new participants because we all are learning from one another and that is crucial,” she added. “I hear from parents who believe they are truly blessed to be part of such an amazing organization at a place where they belong and are important.”

For more information, call 716-608-6234, visit www.fantasticfriendswny.org or go to the organization’s Facebook page.

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