Standing in front of a room of hundreds of people, Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) gestured towards New York Families for Autistic Children President Andrew Baumann and his wife, Pamela, and said, “I believe in angels.”
“They are truly doing God’s work on earth,” Ulrich said of the Baumanns, whose organization, NYFAC, celebrated its 14th annual dinner, dance and awards celebration at Russo’s on the Bay in Howard Beach last Thursday evening.
About 350 people attended the event, during which a number of legislators, educators and other leaders were honored for their dedication to the Ozone Park-based non-profit that works with about 600 families from throughout Queens — and beyond.
Among those recognized was Ulrich, who received the group’s Guardian Angel Award.
“I have two prayers,” Ulrich said. “One, that someday we’ll identify the root cause of autism, and that we’ll find a way to prevent it. The second prayer will come true in a couple of months when we will all drive down Cross Bay Boulevard and see a gorgeous, much needed center.”
NYFAC will expand its operations and open a new center at 164-14 Cross Bay Blvd. in Howard Beach in June. The organization, which now has administrative offices at 95-16 Pitkin Ave. in Ozone Park, will run a number of programs at the new facility, including an adult day program, an after-school program, and speech, occupational and physical therapy.
From offering recreational programs like tennis or swimming to support for the entire family of someone with autism, Baumann said his group is attempting to help those who have been affected by a developmental disorder that affects an ever-growing number of people. According to statistics from the federal government, one in 100 children will be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder this year.
Autism is a developmental disorder often characterized by social interaction impairment and a general difficulty with communication.
“The better we educate the parents and siblings, the better they will build relationships,” said Baumann, whose son is autistic. “We are parents who understand we must help our children.”
Georgiana Reese-Benatti, who works for New York Community Bank, was awarded with NYFAC’s Lifetime Achievement Award for being what Baumann said was one of his “biggest supporters.”
“You and Pamela have worked so hard for so many years, and now you’re going to have the training center you always wanted,” Reese-Benatti said of the expansion.
Michael Brothers, a licensed insurance broker in Richmond Hill who has focused on fundraising for autism programs, received the Humanitarian Award. Excellence in Special Education awards were given to Debbie Edmonds-Shaddi, the principal of PS 233 in Forest Hills, and Oswaldo Roman, the principal of PS 256 in Belle Harbor.
“I’m incredibly honored that NYFAC selected me,” said Roman, who runs a special education program that includes numerous students with autism. “They do such amazing work.”
Jack Taravella, a Howard Beach resident who has long supported the Baumanns, was honored with the Community Service Award. The Autism Advocacy Award went to Scott Badesch, the president and chief operating officer of the Autism Society of America, the country’s largest grassroots organization helping those affected by the disorder.
“They’re really giving hope to thousands of parents,” Badesch said of the Baumanns.
Legislators also heaped praise on NYFAC, and Borough President Helen Marshall said the Baumanns were “the first people to come talk to us about autism after I was elected.” Other legislators attending the dinner included U.S. Rep. Bob Turner (R-Queens, Brooklyn), Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Ozone Park) and Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven), Queens County Clerk Audrey Pheffer, and former Borough President Claire Shulman.