Tag Archives: families

Art Helps Philly Dad Connect with Autistic Son

As a father, Ron Schwoyer was frustrated with his inability to connect with his autistic son: “I would point out something beautiful, neat, funny, or whatever, and Kevin would often react in a contrary or negative way. Almost like he was closing himself off from the world.” He worried that Kevin, the oldest of three children, was “missing the good things in life.” But all this changed, thanks to a painting and a vision.

Ron, 45, of Richboro, Pennsylvania, described Kevin’s painting titled “Why Does My Head Feel This Way?” as “a Van Gogh-ish depiction of what he felt like. In a way, it was unsettling to me, with swirling dark colors … almost like an angry-looking storm cloud.” The painting was a revelation.

For Ron’s wife, Robin, the painting offered a way to connect. She related, “In 2005, I started having ‘flashes’ and visions of me riding around in a blue van covered with colorful puzzle pieces and doing art shows.” When she met Svetlana Gradess that summer, Robin shared her vision of doing art with Autism Spectrum children . Gradess, who loves children and artwork, felt called to help. HeARTS for Autism was born.

HeARTS for Autism , Ron said, differs from other programs for ASD children, because each event offers activities for the ASD person, the siblings, and the parents. The program has branched into other areas, such as dance, movement, and yoga .

Ron is essential to the program’s success. During the initial flurry of activity, Robin said, “Ron would joke that if you stood still in our house for more than a few seconds, you got painted and turned into an art display.” When they began the family programs, Robin was constantly busy with phone calls and emails. Ron helped with the kids as she tended to the needs of other families. His work as an engineer made it possible for her to volunteer.

Gradess added that Ron does everything from volunteering with the kids during monthly events to hauling needed supplies. She said, “He has a wonderful, peaceful, and grounding presence.”

In addition to his job and volunteer work, Ron plays in a Beatles cover band , Shabby Road. He said that he “Forrest Gump”-ed his way into the band, practicing on drums in the studio when they showed up to rehearse. They mentioned they were looking for a bassist and had a bass handy. So, he jammed with them and was asked to join.

Life is very busy for Ron, now that the kids have moved out of diapers and into recitals, concerts, and softball games. “It’s great to be part of this, watching them grow, watching them playing violin or cello with their school orchestra.”

He’s a different sort of father from his dad, who worked shift work : “I was ‘in sync’ with him only about once every three weeks. Thankfully, I am home every night. I am fortunate to be present and to help them with homework (sometimes I feel so smart ), helping them get through a difficult musical passage, going ice skating, or getting a big hug after a long day.”

Thanks to HeARTS for Autism , he’s finally managed to connect with their eldest son. Ron said, “Happily, Kevin in the last few years has matured into a curious, scholarly person. I had been concerned that he would never know who I was.”

Alyce Wilson is a Philadelphia-area mother who writes about people and events in Greater Philadelphia.

Originally published on June 10, 2011 on the Yahoo! Contributor Network

Philly Area Mom Fights for Adoptees’ Rights

Imagine not knowing who your mother is, what your genetic heritage is, or how you might be connected to history. Imagine having difficulty getting a passport or driver’s license. For adopted individuals, this is an unfortunate reality, since many states prevent them from accessing their original birth certificates. But if mother and activist Amanda Woolston, 26, can do anything about it, that will change.

Woolston, who lives in the greater Philadelphia area, is a stay-at-home mom, part-time student, and activist by night. She takes care of blogging, corresponding with other activists, letter writing, and other activities after her sons, 2 1/2 years and 4 weeks, go to sleep. The issue is personal to Woolston, who was adopted, but it was because of her children that she became an adoptee rights advocate.

Her birth state allowed access to her original birth certificate, but she was aware many do not. Soon after her first son was born, she decided the issue was too important to be silent about. She explained, “If I lack access to the document that connects me to my roots and ancestry, they’re missing out on part of their roots and ancestry, too.”

Woolston founded Pennsylvania Adoptee Rights Advocates with several friends and fellow advocates to promote change in this portion of adoption law in Pennsylvania. She is also the Pennsylvania state representative for the Adoptee Rights Coalition.

She said, “Most people may be aware that President Obama recently released his original birth certificate for public view and that there are about 12 states that are considering or who have considered requiring a candidate running for public office to show their original birth certificate. This is something most adopted people cannot do. While everyone can now see President Obama’s original birth certificate, there are six million people in the U.S., the adopted, who cannot even see their own.”

Woolston explained that “upon decree of adoption, an adoptee is given a new birth certificate with their adoptive parents’ names on it, and the original is sealed.” This often takes place even in the case of open adoptions, regardless of the birth mother’s wishes.

Through her activism, Woolston supports legislation and provides education. She also has participated in annual adoptee rights demonstrations at the National Convention of State Legislators.

In her work, Woolston has heard stories about the children of adoptees and how not having access to their heritage has impacted them. She said, “While my children and their children will have knowledge of their heritage through me (a good friend of mine traced us all the way back to the Revolutionary War and the Mayflower!), many other descendants of adoptees cannot say the same.”

As a mother and a woman, Woolston said she fights “alongside and for all of the mothers who have surrendered to adoption who want people to know that they do not want to be hidden in shame. I fight alongside the mothers, both those who have surrendered and those who have adopted, who believe strongly that their sons and daughters should be treated like everyone else.”

She says her activism has taught her to value justice and equality for everyone. Woolston hopes to pass those values along: “My hope is to raise my children to be strong individuals who will advocate for what’s right, no matter what cause is that is important to them.”

Alyce Wilson is a Philadelphia-area mother who writes about people and events in Greater Philadelphia.

Originally published in 2010 on the Yahoo! Contributor Network

The (Not So) Exciting Conclusion of Woofus

Over the past two weeks, I introduced you to a justifiably overlooked children’s book, Woofus, published in 1944. I acquired the book from my dad, and it was one of his childhood books. In last week’s installment, the second section showed us that what initially seemed to be accidental racism might in fact be a wee bit intentional. That is, unless naming a black cat “Tar Baby” was considered perfectly acceptable in 1944.

Then again, this was the same society that, as chronicled in the James Lilek book, Mommy Knows Worse, thought that placing babies in cage-like cribs suspended outside windows was a great way to get them fresh air.

Now, in this final installment, the chronicle of Woofus concludes (in both dramatic and anticlimactic fashion).

Mom takes a very upsetting phone call

In the story so far, Woofus was born black and “woolly” to a litter full of golden-brown pups. Since no one wanted him, the family was unable to give him away, and he became their favorite object of ridicule. (It has just occurred to me that Woofus lacks a mother, implying that she was given away along with the puppies, perhaps because she had transgressed the puppy code by giving birth to a “funny-looking” dog.)

While on a pic-nic in the woods, Woofus finds a lonely black kitten, who is adopted by the family and then dubbed Tar Baby, presumably so it wouldn’t get too uppity.

As the third act begins, the author laments, “But poor Woofus! He forgot that he must be a good dog.” A neighbor, Mrs. Jones, calls to complain that “Woofus has ruined my vegetable garden.” Mother expresses disbelief, but Mrs. Jones is sure it is “Woofus and no other dog.” Because only black, woolly dogs would ruin a vegetable garden.

Mother’s chestnut-brown eyes grow extremely wide at this news, and even the bow on the back of her apron stands up in alarm.

Mrs. Jones rats out Woofus

Nosy Mrs. Jones has company. The same afternoon, Mrs. Smith calls to inform Mother that Woofus has “pulled her clean clothes off the line and dragged them in the dirt.” Again, Mother expresses disbelief, but Mrs. Smith says she is certain. As evidenced from the illustration, she gets a lot of pleasure from relaying this information. No doubt, she’s just looking for an excuse to use her old-fashioned phone, which hasn’t been ringing much lately. In all likelihood, she doesn’t even have a clothes line.

Woofus knows he is a bad, bad dog

So the entire family takes turns scolding Woofus: first Bobbie, then Jean, then Mother and Daddy. This is, after all, what passes for entertainment in this family. Woofus hangs his head in shame and repeats his mantra: “I am a big dog and a woolly dog. I am a smart dog. I must be a good dog. I must be a brave dog, too.”

Clearly, he believes in the power of positive affirmations. Stuart Smalley would be proud.

Tar Baby looks pathetic

The next afternoon, the family discovers that Woofus is missing. Only Tar Baby is sitting in the kennel yard “all alone and not purring nor looking very happy.” Woofus doesn’t come home for dinner, and the family is sad. Hmm. I can’t imagine why Woofus would be staying away from them, after being yelled at by all four family members without any clear idea of what he’d done wrong. I mean, he came home after a fun day of digging and laundry snatching, and they yelled at him for just walking into the yard!

At this point in the book, I began to suspect that the writer and illustrator had worked completely independently. I believe the process worked like this: The illustrator brought in a portfolio of watercolors showing a family and their two pets. The publishing house liked the work, but especially liked the fact that the artist was willing to sell them the whole package for nearly nothing. They then commissioned a writer to look at the illustrations and turn them into a story. “I know these pictures are a little dull, so use your words to make the story exciting,” they said. “And add just a hint of racism. Children like that.”

The family eats dinner

The family is eating dinner when the telephone rings again. Mother answers it (since answering a phone is, of course, women’s work and she was already up from the table, serving everybody seconds while her own plate of soup sits untouched at her place). She comes back and reports cheerfully that “Tommy Jones fell in the creek and Woofus jumped in and pulled him out and saved him. So Mrs. Jones is not angry about her vegetable garden any more.” You would think that such an exciting scene would have made a better illustration than a view of the family eating tomato soup and mini quiches. But you are not a publisher sitting on a portfolio of generic family illustrations.

Jean is so happy to hear the news that her delight shows in her bright blue eyes. She tries hard not to think about the fact that both her mommy and daddy have brown eyes. Bobbie keeps telling her she’s adopted, but Bobbie is wrong. She resolves to take out her frustration on Woofus when he comes home later.

Mother, Jean and Bobbie stare out the window

Just as the family returns to eating their dinner, the phone rings again. This time it is Mrs. Smith. Mother reports, “She says Woofus is a very brave dog to rescue Tommy Jones from the creek. She is not angry about her wash being pulled off the line now.”

Bobbie and Jean say in unison, “I wish Woofus would come home.” Mother, Jean and Bobbie look out the window eagerly. You can tell from their expressions that something very exciting is happening out there. Don’t you wish you could see it, too?

Woofus bounds happily home

Quite proud of himself, Woofus bounds happily home, watched by a slightly anthropomorphic rabbit with large eyes.

Woofus is given a big bone for his bravery. In deference, Tar Baby doesn’t “try to even get a smell of it” but just sits, watching Woofus and purring. Of course, kittens don’t normally gnaw on giant bones, but don’t let that intrude with your enjoyment of the story.

Bobbie and Jean come down to the kennel and finally give Woofus the acceptance he’s been seeking, telling him “what a good, brave dog” he is and how proud they are to have him.

In his funny dog-talk, he responds, “Woof-woof — woof. Woof-woof.”

Woofus gets his happy ending

On the final page, the author translates his message. In dog language, we’re told, that means, “I am a big dog and I am a woolly dog. I am a smart dog and I try to be a good dog. Now I know I am a brave dog.” Woofus chews on his very special big bone, as the children regard him from a safe distance.

He might be a brave dog, and they’re happy to have him in the family, but they still wouldn’t dream of petting him.


And now you have had the same reaction that literally dozens of children had in the late 1940s, when given this book by their well-meaning aunts: unblinking silence.

Sure enough, the next night at bedtime, the little kids were clamoring for a bedtime book. “Mommy, could you read me Pat the Bunny again?”

Poor Woofus.