Program helps special needs children feel ‘at home’

CANTON -- No parent wants to see their young child be alone, isolated, without friends to call their own. Yet, all too often parents of special needs children are confronted with the heartbreaking fact that their children are often treated differently by their peers.

No one knows this better than Marianne Arcieri, a mother of two from Canton.

Eleven years ago, when her oldest child, Michaela, was just born, her pediatrician diagnosed her as having microcephly, an extremely rare genetic condition that manifests itself as a smaller than average head circumference which hinders normal brain growth.

As Michaela grew older and began to attend school, Arcieri noticed that Michaela was feeling isolated from her peers. This was further underscored by the fact that her youngest child, Angela, would often have play dates while Michaela did not.

“One day, Michaela turned to me and said, ‘Mommy I want friends too,’” recalled Arcieri.

That was five years ago, and things have certainly changed since then.

Prompted by her daughter’s plea, Arcieri began “Little Flowers and Friends,” a “spirited” social enrichment program for special needs children, their families and other “compassionate friends.”

Twice a month, “Little Flowers and Friends” invites all special needs children from kindergarten through fifth grade to meet in the lower hall at St. Gerard Majella Church in Canton for an afternoon of low impact aerobics, yoga, and dancing but, most of all, for the opportunity to build friendships in a place where they can feel “at home,” Arcieri said.

“This program is all about love. Love and kindness for these guys,” Arcieri said.

“It’s so important for these kids to have friends,” she added.

As the group coordinator, Arcieri is very happy to see how the program has helped foster friendships among its participants. As a mother, Arcieri has seen how Michaela has thrived at the playgroup.

“She really does look forward to it every time,” Arcieri said. “So much about being a child is wanting to be loved and accepted, and this is precisely what ‘Little Flowers’ does for Michaela -- it gives her a place where she is loved unconditionally.”

The group, which usually ranges from 12 to 18 special needs children, is currently undergoing some changes.

To accommodate the participants who have aged along with the program, Arcieri is adapting it to include middle schoolers as well.

Because self-esteem is a major issue for middle school-aged children, Arcieri is planning to host dances for the middle schoolers when there are enough participants in that age group.

“I don’t want to see these kids isolated. The TV is often their only friend and I try to fight it,” she said, adding that she hopes to begin the dances by the summer.

Arcieri also said that she is also hoping to expand “Little Flowers and Friends” by establishing it as a non-profit organization. Up until now, most of the expenses for the program have come out of her own pocket. By elevating “Little Flowers and Friends” to a non-profit status, Arcieri hopes that ultimately there will be other “Little Flowers and Friends” chapters throughout Massachusetts.

“I would love to see a Little Flowers and Friends of the North Shore, in the West, all over,” she said excitedly. “I would love it if Little Flowers becomes synonymous with love and acceptance for all children.”