When Tony Torres, a well-known Valley Martial Arts instructor, learned his soon-to-be-born baby would be a son, he was elated. He already had a little girl he adored, Regina, so his baby boy would complete his family. Like most parents, as he awaited the baby’s arrival, Torres began forming hopes and dreams for his son.
One thing Torres never envisioned was that his son, Rock, would be diagnosed with autism. According to definitionofautism.com, Autism is defined by the Autism Society Of America (ASA) as: “a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Both children and adults with autism typically show difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities.” Along with four other Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD), autism is part of what is referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorders. Statistics on autismspeaks.org indicate that 1 in 110 children are now diagnosed with autism. For boys, the percentage is 1 in 70.
Rock, now eight years old, is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, but it pains Torres to see the social impact this disorder has placed on his son.
“I wish my son had friends who invited him over and sat with him at lunch,” Torres said. “But he struggles with social skills, so the other kids often don’t include him.”
The most difficult part for Torres is that he knows his son realizes he is excluded. Wouldn’t it be great, he thought, if the Valley had a place where children like Rock could go and be accepted for who they are? That thought lingered in Torres’ mind until he met Lana De Leon.
Tiny in stature but gigantic in spirit, De Leon is an accomplished gymnast, dancer and personal trainer dedicated to helping abuse victims and to pushing the ‘Pay it Forward Movement.’
De Leon’s mission to make life better for others began following a 36-day hospital stay in 2006. Uncertain if she would survive the countless seizures she suffered, she began studying the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.
“He led a country by teaching love,” De Leon said. “He taught compassion. God inspired Gandhi and, in turn, Gandhi inspired such leaders as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa.”
Mentally and physically exhausted, De Leon turned to Gandhi’s words: The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. As she mediated on his message, De Leon promised God that if He would restore her health, she would serve.
De Leon’s health was restored, and she wasted no time fulfilling her promise, working to raise money and awareness for a number of organizations in the Valley. She also returned to teaching yoga and working as a personal trainer.
It was during one of De Leon’s sessions at the Gym at Uptown that she met Torres, who teaches Martial Arts there. The two began talking, and Torres told De Leon about Rock and his hopes for his son to experience friendship. De Leon felt certain she could help.
“But I had to warn Tony first,” she said. “I am very overwhelming.” De Leon works at one speed. Fast.
The two sat down and devised a plan. They completed the paperwork needed to register the Social Day Camp for Autism as a non-profit. Then they discussed the types of social events they thought the children and their families would enjoy.
During this process, De Leon met David Mendez from Las Huellas of South Texas. Las Huellas, Spanish for “The Tracks,” was founded in 2005 and is dedicated to educating everyone, but particularly South Texas youth, about conservation and the management and enhancement of wildlife. In July, Las Huellas hosted their first KIDFISH. Over 550 children showed up to go fishing in the bay. Las Huellas gave free rods and reels to the first 200 children to register.
“It was heartwarming to see all of these kids enjoying fishing,” Mendez said. “I realized some of these kids had never been able to go fishing before.” Mendez felt an overwhelming sense of pride, knowing the Las Huellas board and their members had worked hard to make this day possible for so many children. Wink’s Saloon, Grill and Roping Arena in Brownsville donated the food.
“The world record for KIDFISH is 714 kids. We know we can beat that, and we plan to at our next one,” Mendez said. “I have already contacted the Guinness Book of World Records to complete the necessary paperwork.”
De Leon told Mendez about Social Day Camp for Autism and how she thought children with autism would love to spend a day fishing in the bay. Mendez and the rest of the Las Huellas group decided to make it happen.
“There are a lot of kids who would love to go out there and fish, but they just don’t have the resources,” Mendez said. “We want to give them the resources.”
Las Huellas hosted six children with autism and their families for a recent half-day of fishing. They provided each child with a t-shirt, fishing pole and tackle box. Fathers accompanied their children on the trip while mothers stayed on the shore and did yoga and meditated with De Leon. Mendez said Las Huellas definitely wants to do it again.
The Social Day Camp for Autism needs the community’s help in order to turn their abstract hopes into concrete realities. They want to become a 501C3 but lack the funds to make this happen. They also welcome offers from various businesses and groups in the Valley interested in hosting a day out for Valley children with autism. Liz Dance Studio on McColl in McAllen provided the kids with an afternoon of Zumba. There has also been an ice cream social. Tony Roma’s has generously helped with food for their events. The group plans to have an Art Walk featuring the artwork of autistic children in the Valley. Eventually, the group would like to have their own building where the kids could meet to do arts and crafts, dance, or put on a theater production. The possibilities are endless.
“We’d love to take them bowling one afternoon,” Torres said. “It would be great if we got a call saying there were four lanes open one weekend afternoon for us to take the kids.” Those types of in-kind donations would mean the world to Torres, De Leon and children in our community diagnosed with autism.
Torres and De Leon have hosted fundraisers to help offset the cost of their day camps. The next one will be the Valley’s first Country/Tejano Zumbathon, November 20 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Wink’s. Tickets are $15. For more information, visit winkssaloon.com.
De Leon is getting the word out about the group through her new magazine, Namaste Valley: A Magazine that Bows to the Teacher in You. Social Day Camp for Autism now has a Facebook page and invites anyone interested in volunteering their time, donating money or services or getting their own children with autism involved to visit them there.
“What if we had a social group for children like Rock?” Torres wondered. He turned that thought into action, and now we do.