Colleen Buccieri said her godson was the inspiration for Face Autism, a nonprofit she founded in 2009.

She wanted to provide fun opportunities that can be a challenge for children diagnosed with autism. Colleen started with showing a movie in a sensory-controlled setting. Siblings and parents were invited to attend the movies, held at the Sarasota Film Society. Children with autism could sit and watch the movie, munch on popcorn, yet be free to get up and walk around if they wanted or needed to. It was a no-judgment zone, as all those attending had a child with autism.

“I kind of just looked through Jordan’s eyes of what he was missing out on,” Colleen says.

Oftentimes, families are separated because children with autism can quickly get overwhelmed at a place like a roller skating rink with flashing lights, a disco ball and loud music. Then, the child with autism stays home with one parent while the other parent takes a sibling to a group event.

Face Autism provides a variety of sensory-controlled family activities and fun events like roller skating, bowling, ballroom dancing, Lego classes and horseback riding.. Colleen says she grabs any opportunity to add activities, including an annual Kiddie Pole fishing tournament where local charter captains take families out on the water to fish with Barbie and Spiderman children’s fishing poles.

Colleen is founder and president of the charity, which is run by all nonpaid volunteers and serves 250 to 300 children in Sarasota and Manatee counties. The nonprofit is gearing up for its annual Flip Flop Walk an autism awareness event on Sept. 22 at J.D. Hamel Park in downtown Sarasota.

Last year, Hurricane Irma affected turnout for the event, so Colleen is hoping for better weather this year.

Face Autism also provides holiday events to allow children with autism to meet Santa and participate in Easter Egg hunts and Octoberfest activities. Each year, about 80 children come to Westfield Sarasota mall early on a Sunday morning before the mall opens. There’s no waiting in line, as children participate in arts and crafts and interact with pet therapy dogs. Then they get to meet Santa when their number is called.

Activities have grown to include music therapy, ballroom dancing and even a weekly fitness training session.

Most people ask Colleen, who has no children of her own, why she started Face Autism. As a busy professional who traveled extensively in the corporate world, she said she felt called to help kids like her godson. She went as far as putting money down to form a nonprofit, only to put her idea aside because she didn’t think she had time to do it.

“Something kept tugging at my heart,” Colleen says. “My heart just kept nagging and God was just saying, ‘You’ve got to do it.’ I brought it back up again and just did it.”

Face Autism’s slogan is “Providing hope for children with autism.” That’s the key to everything that the organization does.

“I just really wanted to give back to the kids because I believe in them,” Colleen says. “I believe that every kid can do it if given a chance.”

 

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Registration for the Flip Flop Walk Autism Awareness fundraiser for Face Autism starts at 8 a.m. Sept. 22 at J.D. Hamel Park, Main Street and Gulfstream Avenue in Sarasota.
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