Filling The Gap
Although Theresa Alessandra Russo’s life only lasted five short years and was filled with incredible challenges, she brought immeasurable joy to her family and inspired a foundation that has honored her memory by helping children with special needs.
Theresa, the third child of Susan and Vinny Russo, was born in 1986 with microcephaly, a neuro-developmental disorder. While unable to speak or walk, Theresa loved movement, music and playing in the water. After her death in 1991, the Russo family committed themselves to helping other children who face similar developmental challenges find happiness in those activities.
“We decided that the focus of the organization would be to fund programs in music, art, dance and recreation, because with any budget, those are always the first programs to cut,” Susan Russo said of The Theresa Foundation’s initial mission during an interview on Long Island News Radio’s “The Nonprofit Voice.”
But after two decades of supporting arts programs through community events and grant giving, Russo recognized a gap in available offerings that The Theresa Foundation was uniquely equipped to fill.
Through her work as a dance instructor at public and private schools, Russo frequently came into contact with enthusiastic students with special needs.
“Parents would say to me, ‘My child really loves dancing, but I can’t find a dance studio that will take a student with down syndrome, autism or cerebral palsy,’” Russo explained.
Out of this need, the Theresa Academy of Performing Arts was founded in 2009. Russo says the goal was to create a space simply devoted to recreation and improving students’ quality of life. Over the years, the Theresa Academy has expanded to include programs for weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings, as well as a monthly Sunday workshop, offering classes including music, ballet and yoga.
“Most of our students have a million therapists and are constantly being evaluated,” Russo said. “They deserve and need a place where they can just have fun.”
A major focus of the Academy became ensuring that as many children as possible are included in the program, regardless of their families’ financial status.
“What we’ve found is that so many families simply don’t have the wherewithal financially to send their children to programs after school, so the Theresa Foundation has a lot of scholarships that we provide over the course of the year,” explained Vinny Russo, Theresa’s father and co-founder of the foundation.
The necessity of organizations like the Theresa Foundation speaks to a statewide lack of resources for after-school programs, especially for those with special needs.
According to recent data compiled by the New York State Afterschool Network (NYSAN), last year’s state budget included $57 million for after-school programs, which is 40 percent lower than pre-recession levels. This level of funding neglects an estimated 1.1 million students who want to participate in after-school programs, including many with special needs.
Nora Niedzielski-Eichner, executive director of NYSAN, said that funding for after-school programs needs to increase across the board.
“In the current environment, three out of four qualified programs are turned down for funding by the state,” Niedzielski-Eichner said. “It makes it very hard for innovative programs like the Theresa Foundation to even make it into the competition.”
The Theresa Foundation does not receive any government funding, so its scholarship fund — as well as funding for all of the foundation’s programs — comes from a combination of year-round events and active grant writing.
Additionally, the foundation has thrived in partnerships with other community organizations. One of the most fruitful of these partnerships has been with the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Nassau County (UCPN), where Theresa went to school as a toddler.
Given this personal connection, the foundation got involved with a project to renovate the UCPN’s playground and park facilities, which serve hundreds of children.
Renamed “Theresa’s Fun Place,” the playground and park now include interactive music sensory devices and adaptive equipment specifically designed for students with special needs.
“It’s a wonderful space for hundreds of students to enjoy whenever weather permits,” said Russo.
This past summer, the foundation also expanded its services to include two separate summer camps. Public schools on Long Island provide a six-week summer program for special needs students, but there has been, until recently, two lengthy gaps during which activities are not available for students. The foundation filled this gap by providing a one- week camp in July, as well as a two-week camp in August.
“The response was overwhelming,” Russo said. “This first year of offering the camps, we already had a waiting list.”
The demand is not surprising to Niedzielski-Eichner.
“Parents of children with special needs absolutely need, and deserve, substantial assistance,” she said. “And children with special needs deserve access to enrichment activities. It is so important for everyone to have the experience of having success at something that they love.”
This is a mission to which the Russo family is firmly dedicated.
“We are so thankful that we had Theresa in our lives,” Russo said. “Every day that I go to work at the Academy, I just have to smile because you can’t have a bad day working with our students. They’re just amazing people.”