A local parent who helped form an advocacy group for autism and later, special needs recreation programs in Jefferson parish, has retired.
Peggie Massaro has been involved with the Alternative Program of the Jefferson Parish Recreation Department for individuals with disabilities and special needs for 35 years — first as a contract worker, then as special programs supervisor. She retired in December, leaving a program that she helped develop and nurture from its infancy.
Massaro, whose youngest son was diagnosed with autism when he was 4, learned through advocating for his education, medical treatment and numerous therapies of the need for additional stimulation for these children once their school day and school year ended.
She and five other parents with children diagnosed with autism from Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany, St. Bernard and St. Charles parishes joined in 1976 to start a summer program at Temple Sinai on St. Charles Avenue. These parents, working together for their children, were the nucleus for the foundation of the Autism Society of Greater New Orleans.
Massaro took classes to become certified in aerobics, arts and crafts and dance, and became involved with other summer programs for individuals with disabilities. When she joined the JPRD in 1979, she brought her ideas, dedication and expertise to a fledging idea — to provide after-school activities for children with disabilities through the recreation department.
She began with offering aerobic exercise. As the response from parents increased, crafts, cooking and therapeutic art classes were added.
Massaro developed a summer day camp that has grown into three different groups offering age-appropriate activities for children, youth and adults. Line-dancing and adaptive karate was offered for the teen and young adult age group. The adaptive karate class, one of the first in the country, gave a demonstration at the 1990 Youth Congress Convention of the National Down Syndrome Congress annual convention in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a huge success.
Ed and Lynn Delaney, whose son, John, was the youngest in the class, said, “This class gave John self-confidence. He continued in the adaptive class, then was able to attend regular classes and worked towards his black belt. It was a wonderful experience.”
“Looking back on those early days,” Massaro said, “I knew that all disabilities should be included. Even though my son could not attend because of his uncontrollable actions, I wanted everyone to be involved, stimulated and leave each day having learned something.”
It was not always easy. There was some resistance to having disabled children on the same playgrounds as “normal” children, but with perseverance, the program advanced.
“It has also been my goal that each of them be accepted in society as individuals,” Massaro said.
As participants began aging into adulthood, the Pinnacles Club was formed for ages 21 years and up to provide independent, adult activities. The “Plus 50” group are volunteers from The Arc who meet to help with various tasks such as stuffing envelopes and organizing the inventory of supplies.
Life seems to have a way of adding a “curve” in the road. In 2013, Massaro was diagnosed with cancer. But that has not slowed her down.
After her retirement, she started on her “bucket list” and is slowly checking each item off — the most recent was skydiving. Another is helping individuals in St. John Parish plan a summer camp program for 2015.
Massaro was honored by her co-workers at JPRD in December and recently at the Pinnacles Club annual ball.