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Bellerose autism non-profit eyes new digs

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"Can you believe that?" asked Yolanda Vitulli, the center's creator and its chief executive officer. But Tender Care did lose some other office equipment and a treasured collection of pictures made by its younger autistic clients.

"That's more precious to me than any desk," Vitulli said.

Her center is currently finishing the paperwork on a move to a new site at 114-02 Guy R. Brewer Boulevard in South Jamaica. Once Tender Care arrives there, Vitulli will expand the center's staff and services, thanks to recently securing her first grant from the state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.

For now, Vitulli and her staff of four are operating out of her Bellerose home, back where she started the center three years ago. Tender Care can trace its origins even earlier, however, to the day nearly 12 years ago when a doctor told Vitulli her son Michael, now 14, had a type of neurological disability known as Pervasive Development Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified.

The condition is in the same family of disabilities as the more common autism, which is found in fewer than 1 percent of the population and which also affects communication and social interaction skills.

"Michael was the most beautiful baby," Vitulli said, but she soon realized he was not acting like other children. "As a mother, deep inside you knew something wasn't right."

At the time of Michael's diagnosis, Vitulli was working as a registered nurse at Elmhurst Hospital Center, but she decided to get a job with the city's School District 75, charged with providing special education, to learn more about dealing with developmental disabilities.      

As a nurse trying to understand autistic-type disorders, she said she "had a little notion of what it is and what to do." She gathered information on the conditions and compiled lists of available services for those who suffered from the disorders and eventually began faxing the information to other parents with impaired children. Her husband soon encouraged her to take up the role full-time.

"I was having people knock on my door," she said. "That's when I said I need to advocate for these parents and their children, so the kids can have fulfilling lives."

With Michael's photo gracing the cover of her pamphlets, Vitulli began Tender Care out of her house with fewer than 10 clients. She recruited a board of directors for her non-profit and later moved to a commercial space in the same neighborhood, at 246-14 Jericho Turnpike. Today Tender Care serves 70 clients and has a contract with the city to assist those with autistic-type disorders in Queens and Brooklyn.

The center helps arrange medical, educational and social services, runs an after-school program and provides guidance to its clients and their parents or guardians. Once Tender Care moves to its new home, more staff will be hired and a "respite" service will be added in which employees will go to a client's home and work with them while giving their parents or guardians some time off.

Vitulli, who also has a 5-year-old son without disabilities, said many mothers and fathers found it challenging to have offspring with autistic-type disorders.

"The parents have their own baggage, frustration with having a child with special needs," she said. With Michael, Vitulli said she has had to teach him everything, but he has always had a smile for her. After much work, he can now say, "I love you, Mommy" and understand one command at a time or express a simple request.

"It's very rewarding for me to do what I'm doing," Vitulli said. "If you don't have your heart in the business, you're not going to survive."

Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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