Pop.Earth wellness programs for people with autism

- On a Tuesday morning, Chef Franklin Becker led an Italian cooking class at the restaurant Cena 081 in Westbury, Long Island. But it was with a different group than the celebrity chef works with most days.

"Take the edge at the side of the bowl, crack it and drop it in," Becker explained as he demonstrated how to crack eggs to the rapt audience.

The 30 or so adults who followed along all have autism or other developmental disorders. Becker, who is behind restaurants including The Little Beet and Catch, is intimately familiar with this population because he has teenage son with autism.

"One thing we saw as we were working with the kids was, if they got to see the ingredients from the beginning, and they got to handle them and be a part of it they were much more enthusiastic about trying different food," Becker explained of the concept behind the workshop Eat-Able.

It's one of many program offerings from the Long Island-based non-profit Pop.Earth of which Becker is board chair.

Pop.Earth was founded by Debbie Stone in 2012. While struggling to navigate while struggling to navigate health care and social services for her own son with autism, Dylan, now 16, she saw a need for affordable supportive services for families with loved ones on the autism spectrum.

"Pop.Earth is the first organization in the country to offer low-cost to free holistic health and wellness options for people with autism," she said.

The name of the group stands for Population Earth, and serves ages with an emphasis on programs for the 21 and older group, which has aged out of many publicly funded programs. 

"It becomes more and more difficult to find things for your adult with special needs or autism to do," Stone explained.

Pop.Earth also offers dance, art, music and "Om for Autism" yoga workshops. Most sessions cost $10 or less.

"If you can't afford to attend our programs we offer a pay-it-forward program, where you as a parent, you can come and volunteer and your child can still attend the program," Stone said.

Pop.Earth serves about 500 individuals a week through their programs in New York, New Jersey and Colorado. They plan to expand to Florida next.

"Our goal and vision is to service as many individuals as many times in one week,"  said Stacey Astachovsky, Pop.Earth's executive director. 

Astachovsky said the benefits of Pop.Earth's programs go far beyond just giving participants something to do.

"They improve their sleeping patterns, their eating habits, their internal coping skills and strategies, they're more socially interactive and they're happy, they're happy!" she said.

Participants can attest to that.

Charles Westoff, 22, attended Chef Becker's Eat-Able workshop, his first Pop.Earth event.

"We tried different stuff, we made rice balls and I tried it for the first time," Westhoff said. "It's fun, you get to meet new people and interact."

Pop.Earth is able to offer their programming at low costs through sponsors, like Baldor Specialty Foods, and through fundraisers. The next event, a celebrity chef barbecue and music festival is June 24. More information is here: https://popearth.wixsite.com/cueautism

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