Digitally yours

Special-needs children at two local schools received gifts of empowerment thanks to a police officer’s mission to spread autism awareness and education.

One piece at a time: Officer Sammy Sanchez (above) distributed 64 iPads to public school autism support classes on May 2. The Northeast Philadelphia police officer has raised almost $34,000 and donated dozens of iPads to special-needs children over the last three years. PHOTO: OFFICER HALLEY SPENCER / PHILADELPHIA POLICE

A quest for love prompted a Northeast Philadelphia police officer to start a campaign that has raised almost $34,000 and donated dozens of iPads to special-needs children over the last three years.

Officer Sammy Sanchez of the 2nd district has a son, Sammy Jr., with autism.

“He was nonverbal, very limited to one- or two-word sentences. He couldn’t communicate and tell us his wants and needs,” the elder Sanchez said. “It wasn’t until he was 4 years old that I first heard those words, all I really wanted him to say, ‘I love you.’ Even though I felt like he really didn’t know what it meant, for me it was big.”

PHOTO: OFFICER HALLEY SPENCER / PHILADELPHIA POLICE

Now 13, the younger Sanchez has made great progress with the help of an iPad and the Proloquo2go augmentative and alternative communication software. Meanwhile, his dad is helping other children in similar circumstances benefit from the same technology.

After raising thousands of dollars with a bowling fundraiser last fall, Sanchez distributed 64 iPads to public school autism support classes on May 2. Mission BBQ at 11000 Roosevelt Blvd. hosted the presentation ceremony and a luncheon for the beneficiaries, including Fox Chase and Robert Pollock elementary schools.

“Four years ago, we had one autism classroom for grades K to 2. We added another the following year for grades 3 to 5. And next year, we’re adding another autism classroom for grades K to 2,” Fox Chase Principal Rob Caroselli said. “So the need is there, and I want to be able to provide our community with local autism programming so our students don’t have to go outside the neighborhood.”

Sanchez’s charity gave 20 iPads with software installed to Fox Chase.

“With the financial issues of the school district, we don’t have the money to buy the programs. So the donation we received today is really going to help the program for our kids. It’s going to help kids communicate better with the technology,” Caroselli said.

PHOTO: OFFICER HALLEY SPENCER / PHILADELPHIA POLICE

At Pollock, there are five autism support classes and a sixth coming next fall. About 35 students have autism, but the school had only nine iPads before Sanchez awarded 16 more.

“It’s going to enhance their educational program and communication skills,” said Kelley McGrath, Pollock’s special education liaison. “We have a program called Inclusion Works, so all of our autistic support classes are paired with a regular education class. They spend time going into each other’s classrooms, and the goal is to practice their communication skills.”

“At Pollock, we value having autistic support at our school,” Assistant Principal Lakisha Baxter said. “We really value having those children and are working to increase the support so they make the progress that they need.”

Sanchez has seen the progress in his own son. The Proloquo2go app uses pictures and icons to help kids convey what’s on their minds and learn how to speak for themselves.

“With the help of a therapist, they introduced an iPad to him that he can carry. I saw how these kids are really into the tech stuff, even kids with special needs,” Sanchez said. “With the help of some software, (Sammy’s) speech got increasingly better and better. Now he actually tells us, ‘I’m hungry,’ ‘I’m cold,’ ‘I’m hurt’ or ‘I’m sad.’”

In addition to Mission BBQ, Sanchez has gotten support from many businesses and organizations such as Dunkin’ Donuts, Miller’s Ale House, Hollywood Towing and the Philadelphia Blue Flame police and fire football club. The next Bowling for iPads fundraiser will be Sept. 16. Sanchez will soon begin soliciting for sponsors and donations for the silent auction. For information, email to coachsam15@msn.com ••

William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or wkenny@bsmphilly.com. Follow the Times on Twitter @NETimesOfficial.