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