By Sara-Megan Walsh
A St. James family is looking ahead to brighter days raising their son with autism after receiving a generous donation.
The Cusumano family received an extensive 84-panel solar system donated by SUNation Solar Systems and its not-for-profit SUNation Cares, which will supply free electricity for life. The funds saved will be used to help their 14-year-old son Dylan attend weekly equine therapy sessions at Pal-O-Mine Equestrian in Islandia.
“When we can all come together as a team it makes a tremendous difference in people’s lives, especially people like the Cusumanos who are most deserving to reap the benefits and tremendous rewards that were generously donated,” said Lisa Gatti, founder and executive director of Pal-O-Mine.
The solar panels donated to the family were the end result of positive community building by several local companies. Gatti said she was introduced to Scott Maskin, CEO and co-founder of SUNation, a Ronkonkoma-based solar panel company, through Empire National Bank, where they are both customers. Maskin said as he learned firsthand about the nonprofit work done by Pal-O-Mine to benefit children with disabilities, he asked Gatti if there was a family he could step in to help. That’s when the Cusumanos were nominated.
“We are overwhelmed by the generosity and I think we were stunned because we feel there are so many needy families on Long Island,” said Amy Cusumano, Dylan’s mother. “The gift of solar panels lessens our load or burden so the money we are using to pay an electric bill, we now get to decide if we can increase his horse time or do something else for the boys.”
Dylan, the oldest of the Cusumano’s five sons, started horseback riding at Pal-O-Mine at age 5 due to the therapeutic benefits. Equine therapy provides children with disabilities with positive vestibular, or inner ear, input, can improve speech and language skills, help with walking and can increase fine and gross motor skills, according to Gatti.
“[Dylan] didn’t speak when he came to Pal-O-Mine,” she said. “One of his first words was ‘walk.’ I remember Ms. Cusumano being shocked he began to speak while he was riding.”
Despite seeing improvement, Amy Cusumano said she was forced to discontinue her son’s horseback riding lessons for a few years when financial hardship struck. She said it was heartbreaking.
“When he’s on the horse, he’s so at peace, he’s so totally Dylan,” his mother said. “So when we can give him that half an hour a week where he can just enjoy himself and have some fun, it’s money well spent.”
Cusumano said Dylan’s medical care costs run $35,000 to $40,000 a year on average between co-payments, therapy and those services not covered by insurance. The estimated $3,000 a year the solar panels will save the Cusumano family will be used to help pay for his adaptive riding, which typically costs $260 for four 30-minute sessions.
Dylan’s individually tailored plan through Pal-O-Mine has him riding Ella, a 12-year-old palomino haflinger, once a week. His mother said Dylan frequently requests to go see his horse and cares for her. Horseback riding is motivating to him, and gives Dylan a sense of empowerment and independence, according to Cusumano.
“Autism is not the primary thing we are thinking about,” she said. “Maybe we’re thinking about how amazing he is or that he can ride a horse.”