Every couple prepares excitedly for parenthood and in that excitement, there is also a hint of fear and trepidation. What if our baby is not okay for some reason? Tina and Wayne Cordova were like any expectant parents and then they heard the news that no parent wants to hear.
“We discovered a few months before our daughter, Emmalee, was born that she was going to have some special needs. When she was born we took a quick family picture and then they whisked her away and took her to the neonatal ICU,” Wayne remarks.
Two months after their daughter was born she was diagnosed with epilepsy and a few months after that she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Emmalee has multiple seizures throughout the day, five to ten is considered a “good day.”
As Emmalee grew and the Cordovas faced the challenges of raising a special needs child, they started reaching out to parents of other children with special needs. They discovered a program in Arkansas founded by Joe and Jen Butler whose son has special needs. Wayne wanted to start a similar program in Hernando County so they founded the first affiliate, or “branch,” of Ability Tree in September of 2017. Now there are three others – one in the St. Augustine/Jacksonville area, one in New Jersey and one in Texas.
In Hernando, Pasco, and Citrus counties, according to 2017 statistics, there are 16,337 children enrolled in public schools that have special needs. That’s not counting children that are homebound, home-schooled or enrolled in private schools.
“You look at that number and then you realize, there is a family (parents, grandparents or a caregiver) that needs a break from the everyday 24/7 cycle of raising a child with special needs. Then there is a sibling or siblings feeling left out, forgotten or overwhelmed because they might not have friends to connect with who understand what it’s like to have a sibling with special needs,” Wayne comments.
Ability Tree’s mission is to reach out to families impacted by disability through recreation, education, support, and training (R.E.S.T.). Its aim is to partner with individuals and organizations to raise awareness and build support networks to strengthen and grow able families.
The organization does this in a number of ways and through various programs. One of these programs is Parents Night Out. It provides four hours of respite to parents or other caregivers on a monthly basis.
“Some of our families go out to dinner or the movies and some just go back home for some quiet time or to clean house,” Wayne continues.
The organization has fun family events, education events, and support groups. Ability Tree also offers training to area businesses, churches and organizations to teach them how to be more inclusive and how to start special needs ministries.
Recently, thanks to the generosity of a local business owner, the local Ability Tree affiliate was able to move into a 5,600 square foot building that used to be a fitness center. The landlord, Mike Rado of Rado Lawn Care would normally be able to get $5,000 a month for rent. He is charging them just $1,500 a month. Ability Tree has one year to come up with the funds to purchase the building so they can make it a permanent home for the organization.
The Cordovas, with the help of several local businesses and numerous volunteers, are already starting to renovate the building to make it into a multi-use facility. One portion has become an Arts room, complete with tables and chairs, art supplies and even a barre alongside a mirrored wall where the children can practice dance. The room was fully-funded by The Hub of Hernando and Hernando Loser, two local businesses. Other major corporate sponsors are Rookies Sports Bar and Grill Restaurant, Comfort Care Specialists, and the Print Shack.
Another interesting part of the building is called the Chill Lounge and Sensory Room. This is a place for the children to relax and calm down if they are overstimulated. The Robinson Family and Rotary of Brooksville completely sponsored this room.
Tina is especially excited about the soft gym indoor playground that they are planning to set up.
“It will be a place where all the kids will be able to play. Kids with special needs and disabilities can’t necessarily play in outdoor playgrounds because they might not be handicapped-accessible. We want to provide a place that is indoors so that it’s cool and comfortable. We want indoor swings and climbing apparatuses to provide sensory input and to let them release some of their energy,” Tina explains.
It’s a huge cost because special needs equipment is very expensive. It has to be built durable and has to be installed correctly to ensure safety. The Cordovas are currently looking for multiple sponsors to help them out with this cost.
There are many more plans in the works for the Ability Tree center located at 8411 Balm Street in Spring Hill, just off U.S. 19. But all of this requires money and volunteers. Ability Tree is fully donor-supported. There is a charge for families to participate in the program, but those that can’t afford it aren’t turned away. Scholarship programs are available and parents receiving the aid can also volunteer their time.
For more information on Ability Tree Florida go to the corporate website: https://abilitytree.org/ or call 352-593-0430. You can also Like their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/AbilityTreeFlorida/ to keep up with news and events.