The Greco family of New Rochelle started Christopher’s Voice to assist families with autistic children or adults with personal alarms to prevent and detect wandering. John Meore/lohud
NEW ROCHELLE – On summer vacation a few years ago, Chris and Tracy Greco lost sight of their autistic, nonverbal son, Christopher.
They located him safely less than a minute later, but that moment of panic and fear is something the Grecos say they wouldn’t wish upon any parent.
“That one minute felt like an hour,” said Chris Greco, New Rochelle Police Benevolent Association president and a veteran detective with the city’s police department.
As self-appointed advocates for the autism community, the Grecos have decided to launch a foundation that will provide home security systems to families with autistic children and toys to emergency services to give to those children they may encounter.
The foundation is called Christopher’s Voice, which the Grecos established in April on their son’s 11th birthday. It aims to raise funding to support safety and training programs geared toward people with the condition.
“We decided to come up with a way to fund families that are struggling and have children with autism who can’t necessarily afford what insurance won’t pay for,” Chris Greco said.
The foundation was launched on the heels of the New Rochelle PBA’s successful Autism Patch Challenge, an awareness campaign that placed customized emblems on emergency response vehicles. Greco said more than 110 agencies participated nationwide, including about 90 in Westchester.
Like the patch challenge, Christopher’s Voice aims to raise awareness among emergency responders in the event they encounter a disabled person — particularly a person with autism.
“There’s been so many things in the news lately about first responders or police officers not even knowing that a young man is autistic,” Tracy Greco said. “Then they tackle him and he’s freaking out more, or the noise of an ambulance freaks them out.”
She recalled a school bus incident with her son in which emergency services were called to assist. She said the responders didn’t check Christopher’s ID bracelet and had no idea he was nonverbal.
To ease these situations, the Greco’s foundation is offering to donate “Christopher’s Go Bags” to emergency service agencies in Westchester. The drawstring bags are filled with sensory toys, coloring materials and noise-canceling ear muffs for responders to give an autistic child as soothing mechanisms.
“There’s nothing on these vehicles for them — something to jiggle, fidget, or sooth them,” Tracy Greco said. “Even if you blow bubbles with these children it will sometimes calm them down.”
The bags also include autism fact sheets and helpful tips for the responders to use.
In 2015, Chris Greco was one of the first in the county to introduce training to a local agency for properly handling disabled people. New Rochelle police use Project Lifesaver, a program that can find an individual through a tracking bracelet.
This year, the Grecos were the first family in Westchester to install the Project Lifesaver home transmitter system. The home system includes a perimeter alarm, a transmitter and a receiver to pair with a tracking bracelet. If a child were to wander more than 100 feet away from home, an alarm would sound.
But at more than $1,000 apiece, the home system isn’t affordable for many families. Christopher’s Voice hopes to provide the systems to those families in Westchester and beyond.
This month, the foundation gave an alert system and new home locks to Luz Porfil, a New Rochelle mother whose 12-year-old son, Julian Mejias, is autistic.
“It’s a great relief and peace of mind knowing that at least I’ll be aware if he does get out, something will notify me,” Porfil said. “He does unlock the doors and he’s not aware of danger, so at least now I’ll have peace of mind while I’m resting if by any chance he happens to get out.”
Christopher’s Voice will soon gift another local family with the security system, Chris said.
Porfil said she appreciates that the Grecos can relate to her “daily struggle” caring for a child with a disability.
“It isn’t easy, but (the Grecos) have been great in teaching me different techniques about safety and also making me more aware of certain services that are available for Julian, which is a great help,” Porfil said.
The Grecos plan to hold several fundraisers throughout the year to benefit Christopher’s Voice, including the Moonlight Cruisers Classic Car Show at Iona Prep on Aug. 13 and a barbecue at Cousin’s Cigar Lounge on Sep. 10.
To learn more about Christopher’s Voice or to donate, visit the foundation’s website here.