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UK staffer Naomi Cartmell wants to cruise Europe with you in July 2020

Naomi Cartmell (top center) takes a dip with guests and peer staffer

Since our first European cruise last August, we've received enthusiastic requests from guests asking when we are going to Europe again. We are excited to host our second European cruise this July, which will depart Southampton, England, on July 11th for an 8-night adventure on Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas. The itinerary includes several ports of call in Spain, as well as Paris, France.

Accompanying us this year is our new volunteer staffer, Naomi Cartmell, a speech and language therapist based in the United Kingdom. 

We interviewed Naomi about her first experience cruising with us this past February on a Caribbean cruise from Bayonne, NJ, as well as her plans to join "Team Orange" in assisting our guests while cruising around Europe this summer.

LISTEN to our podcast interview with Naomi Cartmell, UK-based AotS volunteer staffer


AotS:  What made you decide to come all the way from the UK to Bayonne, New Jersey, to cruise with AotS as a staff member?

Naomi Cartmell: Well, I first heard about Autism on the Seas last year and I just couldn't wait to get started. I didn't want to wait until the July cruise through Europe. So I just decided to use up some of my annual leave and join as a staffer in February.

AotS: What was it that sparked your interest specifically?

Naomi Cartmell: Well, I absolutely love to travel in my own life and I have been on some cruises before, but also as a speech and language therapist I work with a lot of children with autism and other special needs. So just to combine those two things and to know what a big impact it could have on those families, I just thought it's something that I have to be a part of and I just couldn't wait to get started.

AotS: Did the experience fulfill your expectations?

Naomi Cartmell: Absolutely and more. I mean, obviously, I was a little bit nervous going into it. I didn't know who the other volunteers were going to be, what the families were going to be like. But it was an absolutely wonderful experience and I can't wait to do it all over again.

AotS: Did you bond with any kids in particular? How did it all work?

Naomi Cartmell:  I was one of the general staff members, so that was really lucky because I got to spend time with and bond with all of the families on our trip. And definitely there were some kids that stood out. There was one little guy, Callum, who absolutely loved to practice his British accent. So that was great spending time with some of the families at dinner and yeah, just getting to know them really well, which you can definitely do when you're a staff member.

AotS: How are families in the UK taking downtime with their extended family and their child that may be on the spectrum?

Naomi Cartmell: I think that everywhere kind of in the UK and the US are becoming more aware of autism and aware of developmental difficulties and what they can do to support children. But I haven't heard of anything such as Autism on the Seas, which will support a family through a whole trip, a whole holiday. And that's why I'm really excited to get the word out to UK families that there is such a thing that exists and no matter the extent of the difficulties that your family might be having and that your child might have, we would support you through that and you can have an experience just the same as any other family.

AotS: What did you think about in terms of working in your professional life when you work with children that are on the spectrum versus being in a more relaxed kind of vacation environment working with the kids? Was there a difference in their attention? Was there a difference in their mood? Anything to note?

Naomi Cartmell:  It was really just wonderful and I think it helps to kind of get to know the kids more because what I liked is that there was no pressure from the children to do anything that they didn't want to do, like during respite. But they could absolutely choose their activity and we would kind of go along with that.

Obviously working as a therapist, there's always some kind of goal in mind, "Oh, I'm doing an assessment and I've kind of got that at the back of my mind." But on the cruise, you could just absolutely relax and get to know the kids, do what they wanted to do and just have fun. I mean some of the activities that we did with the families were absolutely amazing. They have rollerskating and bumper cars and skydiving on a cruise ship. So the fact that there wasn't any therapy to do, we could just have fun with them, which I think is really important.

AotS: You said earlier before we started the interview that one of the things that you found very valuable was to get close to the parents. Tell me a little bit more about what you meant by that.

Naomi Cartmell:  Well, I think just keeping in mind that the trip is for the whole family, isn't it? And the point of having these professional staffers is so that the parents can feel relaxed and feel secure, that their charges are in good hands and that they can enjoy their holiday. I think that as well as supporting the kids to feel safe and have a good time, making the whole trip fantastic, is to support the parents so that they can have a good time as well.

AotS: I've talked to many families and staffers and one former staffer stands out in my mind: Dr. Rachel Potter was a teacher and she specialized in special education. She said her experience with families was so enlightening that she ended up taking her student teachers on cruises with AotS to sensitize them to the parents and how their lives are affected day to day. Did you come away with similar feelings? 

Naomi Cartmell: Yeah. I think it was definitely similar for me. Kind of tuning into the fact that actually doing day to day activities with a child with significant special needs is hard. Just being a parent of a child with special needs is hard. Having this opportunity to enjoy a relaxing holiday is so important. Something that typical families take for granted.

AotS: So, for your next cruise, is there anything that you plan on doing more of or anything that you want to do differently?

Naomi Cartmell: I'd definitely still go into it with an open mind because obviously I only have one experience and I think every group dynamic will be quite different, especially since this is a European cruise. I think I will be planning more activities. This past cruise, I had a couple of games in my bag and some of the kids really enjoyed playing them. So I think I'll definitely plan a few surprises for respite and that sort of thing.

AotS:  Is there anything else that I didn't ask you that maybe we should know or you'd like to tell us about your experience? Or maybe some advice for parents who are thinking about this but haven't done it yet?

Naomi Cartmell: Yeah, I think that from my experience as a staff member, I would really encourage families to go for it. I know that it's probably something that you have to plan in advance and obviously save up for a while, but from the experiences that I've heard about from families, some of which were on their third, fourth, etc., cruise, it is worth it. And some people say they would never travel any other way. I would really like to see Autism On The Seas expand a bit more to the UK and have more choice of European cruises in the future, so that there's plenty of options for British families, as well.

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Special education teacher moonlights as volunteer staffer with Autism on the Seas

Allison Ariemma with AotS guest, Cole Perry

New Jersey native Allison Ariemma is a special education teacher with the Passaic School District. She has also volunteered her time as a professional staffer with Autism on the Seas for the past three years. Allison has helped families with special needs fulfill their vacation dreams on half a dozen cruises and has three more scheduled between this year and 2020. She talks about her experience as an AotS staffer and the special bond she formed cruising with the Perry family and their son, Cole, a 10-year old on the autism spectrum.

LISTEN to our podcast interview with Allison Ariemma

AotS: As a fulltime special education teacher, what made you decide to take on a volunteer staff role with Autism on the Seas?

Allison Ariemma:  I initially applied for a volunteer staff position with Autism on the Seas purely out of curiosity. A friend of mine who does ballroom dancing with individuals in wheelchairs actually found it through many of her travels, and sent me the link. My gut reaction was, "This is pretty cool. I could travel and do something I love." But I've continued to go back because it just means so much more than traveling. It's honestly the best feeling in the world.

AotS: On your last two cruises, you were assigned as a one-on-one staffer to the Perry family. Tell us about that family, and how that came together?

Allison Ariemma: Well, I met the family last July on the cruise to Alaska, and there was just an instant connection with the mother, the grandmother, and the little boy, Cole. The family was so sweet, outgoing, and bubbly that it was kind of hard not to fall in love with them. I remember we would rotate each dinner and whenever I sat with them, it just felt like I was sitting with my own family at the dinner table. We've continued to cruise together twice since then and we're trying to book a third relatively soon.

AotS: So you clicked with Cole and the family on the Alaskan cruise, and when they decided to book their next cruise, they opted for One on One staffing and requested you?

Allison Ariemma: Yes. Kristy Perry actually messaged me and said, "Hey, how do you feel about taking some days off in January?" I made sure that it worked with my teaching schedule and we booked it together. On that cruise, we actually booked the following cruise that took place this past July. So we have a nice little July, January, July pattern going on.

AotS: In your opinion, what is the key difference between being assigned as a one-on-one staffer versus working as general staff, where you're assisting with the overall group?

Allison Ariemma: In addition to getting to know the personality of the child or adult that you're working with, you get to know the family's personalities really well. You get pretty quickly in tune with their schedules. You'll know if they are early risers or late risers, what they like to eat at every meal, etc., so you can have it ready for them or for their child. You get a general idea of what they're going to do on the days that we're on the ship, as well as the days that we're in port, so you can plan your day around theirs. And you can see where you can push them to try new things, and where they like to stay in their comfort zone. So I took whatever I learned from the first cruise and I pushed them a little further on each cruise to raise the bar on their comfort levels.

AotS: Have you seen any changes or developments in Cole during the cruises? Has he done anything on the last cruise that he didn't attempt on the first two?

Allison Ariemma: Well, the first cruise, I remember he always had to wear his life jacket and he only liked the hot tub. He's a little California boy, so he loves warm temperatures. But the last two cruises we've gotten him to go in the hot tub, or in water in general, without the lifevest. This last cruise, I got to watch him go into the ocean for only the second time in his life. He definitely likes calmer waters, more so than wavy open waters. But the fact that he was even willing to try to go in without a life jacket was a pretty big development and he was extremely happy.

AotS: As a 10-year old on the autism spectrum, what are some of Cole's specific challenges?

Allison Ariemma: He is kind of a selective speaker. He has to warm up to you before he actually starts to talk to you. Which I've seen him... It took a long time on the first cruise, and now with each time I see him, he kind of opens up a little more. The first couple of days he goes to respite, he'll be standoffish with everybody. But the more he goes, the more open he gets and willing to participate. He really, really loves Snapchat and videotaping things, so anytime he can try to catch himself on camera or catch somebody on camera, he kind of instantly connects with you.

AotS: Was Cole enthusiastic about trying some of the onboard activities? 

Allison Ariemma: He was definitely very hesitant at first, but we kind of pushed him with love. We have tried the rock wall and that is not his favorite thing, but we've participated in just about everything from the water slide and rollerblading, to ice skating and the trampoline, which he actually really loved. It just took him some time to get used to having to be harnessed up and attached to the apparatus. But, like I said, his favorite thing to do is to go in the hot tub. So if he could spend all day there he would.

AotS: How do you think your experience as a special education teacher has played into your effectiveness in assisting AotS families on these cruises?

Allison Ariemma: I think having the background knowledge in any student group with special needs, is extremely helpful in understanding how a child may react in certain situations. But I think something that this company did for me that I think I needed to get in touch with, was my more compassionate, caring side. And understanding that not everything is procedural like it is in a classroom. Understanding how the families manage throughout their day has been extremely helpful for me as a teacher to see that. It made me understand the parents' side and it made my heart bigger for these families.

AotS: After working with other AotS volunteer staff from a diverse range of educational and career backgrounds, were you surprised at the caliber of your co-workers?

Allison Ariemma: It's honestly incredible when you get to meet people that are doing the same thing you do, and they love what they do. You realize how wide this world is. I've met people who are administrators in special education, which is what I want to be. I've met college professors, I've met fellow teachers, I've met behavior analysts. And it's just incredible to hear and see us come together and work towards a common goal with our special needs families. We feed off each other's energy. For the first time, it's not completing task analysis sheets or collecting data. It's using our hearts to help these families.

AotS: How do you think the guests feel? Do you think that they're surprised when they realize that their volunteers are real professionals or young adults studying to become a professional -- not just kids volunteering to get a free cruise? 

Allison Ariemma: I think the first day parents are a little bit confused as to what we're there for. And I know that sounds silly, but we're not only there for the kids or the adults with special needs, we're there to make sure that the families are enjoying their vacation. So when parents are like, "Wow. I can really just check my emails because you're swimming with my child?" Or, "Wow, I can take a nap during respite?" Those are things that they're so in shock that we provide to them. And to us, it's something we take for granted. You know, being able to just do simple daily things. And they learn to trust us pretty quickly. Some families quicker than others, but once you gain that trust the families are like, "All right, see you in two hours. Enjoy respite. I'll be back." And they get to have a real vacation.

AotS: Is there anything that I didn't ask you that I should have about your experience with Autism on the Seas?

Allison Ariemma: You know, I started out my volunteer journey with AotS kind of selfishly because I wanted to travel and do something I love, but I keep going back. And you know, most people who cruise with me have seen me cry many times at the end of the cruise, because it's just the greatest feeling in the world to be able to help a family and to help the children or adults. It's something people look their whole lives for, something that makes them happy, and that's genuinely what makes me happy.

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