Like autism, The Paula and Anthony Rich Center for Autism has no geographic boundary and touches children from all backgrounds and cultures.
Since being established almost 25 years ago, the Rich Center has offered that exact same hope, that children affected with autism can reach their full potential.
Bobby Lopatta, of Boardman, has been attending the Rich Center for the last four years. To him, it’s home, a safe place where he is loved and given the tools to grow.
Bobby was diagnosed with autism when he was just two years old.
“To hear that was hard,” said Michele Lopatta, Bobby’s mom.
Like most parents, you can see her eyes light up when she talks about her smart, thriving 7-year-old.
She and her husband truly believe a lot of that is due to the teachers, therapists and administrators who have changed their lives.
“He’s non-verbal unfortunately, that’s really our only setback, but he’s very bright,” Michele said.
Bobby uses an iPad to communicate and will ask or tell you anything. He can also read and write.
“Sending him here, they’ve discovered everything that’s been inside him, everything that was kind of bottled up that I believe he was waiting to tell us,” Michele said.
Back when the center opened in the late ’90s, it was a way to honor Paula and Anthony Rich.
“And a way to provide support and something groundbreaking for the Valley that didn’t exist at the time,” said Greg Boerio, director of academics and outreach for the Rich Center.
On Sept. 8, 1994, the pair and their unborn child died when USAir Flight 427 crashed near Pittsburgh.
Their wedding photo hangs in an office in the Rich Center to this day.
Paula and Anthony had been godparents to their nephew, who also had autism, and always had it on their hearts to raise awareness.
Money from their memorial helped establish the Rich Center.
“Here inside the Rich Center, we can remove any obstacles for our students that have very, very successful days while they’re here. But educationally, it’s our responsibility to work with them and learn how to cope and overcome those obstacles,” Boerio said.
“When I hear that a little boy can write his name or a little girl says hello, I personally think, ‘Man, I am so happy for their mom,'” Michele said.
Just being at the Rich Center, you realize how incredible each of these students are and how everyone there is rooting for their success.
“The teachers are the biggest part of that — there are no better teachers than there are at the Rich Center,” Michele said. “All of the children are so different, even though they have that same diagnosis. So we in the Mahoning Valley are so fortunate to have this school here to help our children. I mean, our children are our future, and they could be equally as successful as anyone else, even though they have autism.”
Over the years, the Rich Center has done a beautiful job of dignifying the autism community here in the Valley, reassuring these families that no matter where their child falls on the spectrum, they are loved, heard and understood.
Be sure to tune in to 33 WYTV at 7:30 p.m. tonight as we team up with our sister station, WCMH in Columbus, for the latest edition of “The Autism Puzzle.” During the special, Evening Anchor Lindsey Watson will have more details about the Lopatta family and how The Rich Center for Autism has changed their lives.
Our coverage starts during 33 News at 6 p.m. with a live phone bank to answer any questions you may have.