WEST CHICAGO – When West Chicago healthcare workers Mabel Chirolla and Romina Gieseman recognized the lack of support for local Spanish-speaking parents of children with autism, they decided to do something about it.
Together they founded PANNA (Padres Ayudando Nuestros Niños con Autismo, or Parents Helping Their Children with Autism) through their office, Pediatric Health Associates, in West Chicago.
The support group is led entirely in Spanish and provides parents with much-needed resources and a place to learn from each other.
“The objective of this group is support every time,” Chirolla said.
The Western DuPage Special Recreation Association (WDSRA) recently teamed up with Pediatric Health Associates to expand the program by adding a structured recreation opportunity for children while their parents meet.
¡Jugamos Juntos! (Let’s Play Together) is led by WDSRA Outreach Manager Dayell Houzenga and trained volunteers. It provides various group and individual activities for children with autism, as well as their siblings.
“Being a recreation professional, I just knew there was more that could be done for the kids,” said Houzenga, who first became involved with the group as a guest speaker.
PANNA was founded in 2010 by Chirolla, site manager at Pediatric Health Associates, and Gieseman, a certified nurse practitioner. Before then, the closest autism support group for Spanish speakers was Grupo Salto in Chicago, too far for many West Chicago residents, Chirolla said.
Through the partnership with WDSRA, which launched this February, PANNA moved from the Pediatric Health Associates office to the West Chicago Park District, which provided the support group and children’s program with more space.
The group is funded by the nonprofit CareLink Foundation, while ¡Jugamos Juntos! is made possible through a grant from the advocacy organization Autism Speaks.
WDSRA officials plan to cover the cost of the program with the organization’s budget after the grant concludes at the end of this year, Houzenga said.
PANNA invites a variety of speakers to present to the group, but when special guests are unavailable, parents share their own experiences and resources, Chirolla said.
The group has discussed a wide range of issues, from accepting an autism diagnosis to addressing sexuality with a person with autism, she said.
Activities at ¡Jugamos Juntos! have included a visit from therapy dogs, a nature hunt and a movie night. Each session also offers more small-scale options, such as drawing, making crafts or playing with sensory items, Houzenga said.
Both PANNA and ¡Jugamos Juntos! are free to participants.The meetings are held from 7:30 until 9 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month. The next meeting will be Nov. 13.
Anyone is welcome to be part of the group, Chirolla said. Currently, the support group has about 20 participating families.
Being a partner of the support group helps WDSRA reach those in the area who may have been underserved by the organization in the past, due to language and cultural barriers, Houzenga said.
“I’m glad that WDSRA’s able to provide this opportunity,” she said.