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March 18, 2007

With family support, Elmira teen carves path to success

From: Elmira Star-Gazette - Elmira,NY,USA - Mar 18, 2007

By Salle E. Richards

Like the other workers at E.M. Pfaff & Son Inc. in Horseheads, August Spaziani III, 19, tackles his assigned task with diligence. His focus is on making each piece as perfect as possible.

On a recent day, a co-worker, T.J. Lagonegro, showed him how to sand the rounded end of a ladder part without burning the wood.

The new technique involved rotating the end of the wood against the sanding wheel with a steady speed and pressure.

"We have a big order for subway ladders," Lagonegro said. "I realized Augie would be a big help in getting it done."

Lagonegro conveyed this to Spaziani without a word in a few minutes of pantomime.

Spaziani nodded his understanding. Lagonegro then left him with the palette stacked with ladder rails needed to complete the order.

Spaziani has been deaf since birth. He also is autistic. This has not stopped him from going through public school, completing the woodworking program through then-SCT-BOCES, graduating with honors from Southside High School and landing a permanent job last summer at E.M. Pfaff.

His story is one of persistence on the part of his family and the willingness of others to give him the chance to show what he can do.

"He's a great kid," said Sheila Katz, who was Spaziani's speech and signing teacher at Riverside Elementary School.

She also gave credit to his parents, Debbie and August Spaziani II of Elmira, whose first concern always has been that their son have the opportunity to realize his full potential.

That has not always been easy, say both the Spazianis and those who know them.

Augie Spaziani was diagnosed as profoundly deaf when still a toddler. The autism diagnosis came later when he was in middle school.

"Many deaf children have the same behaviors as children with autism," Debbie Spaziani explained, referring to the wordless vocalizations and random movements that were once son's only way of expressing anxiety or frustration.

The first hint that her son might be autistic as well as deaf came when it was time for him to start school. His family took him to Rochester to consider the residency program at the School for the Deaf.

August Spaziani II remembers being relieved that the school didn't think it would be good for his son because of his reluctance to communicate in any manner.

"We would have only seen him on weekends," August Spaziani II said.

Instead, a program was devised for his son at Riverside Elementary School.

"He was kind of a puzzle," remembers Katz. "He was very time oriented and didn't like change."

But like the boy's parents, Katz recognized that Spaziani had a lot of potential.

By the time Spaziani went to high school, he had made friends and learned basic signing. He continued to have a rich family life.

"We were always together," remembers his sister, Jessica Spaziani, 27.

One favorite activity they shared was going to movies together.

The family closeness is continuing into the next generation.

Augie Spaziani dotes on his nephew, Jessica's son, Jacob, 6.

"He's made him steps for his bed and a wagon," she said.

Jessica Spaziani said she admires her parents for their dedication to her brother.

She shared the family pain when they were initially told he probably would never be able to do anything because of his disabilities.

"I was really irritated when he wasn't given a fair chance (to show what he could do)," she said of those early years when the family tried different programs and suggestions. "I thought he deserved a chance."

Debbie Spaziani said at times parents have to go against what experts say when it doesn't seem to be working.

"Don't let other people tell you what is right for your child. Do what you think is right," she said.

She believed that her son had always shown a talent for woodworking and enjoyed it. He was an avid watcher of television woodworking shows while still in elementary school.

August Spaziani II said he began buying tools and has assembled a home woodshop where he and his son work on projects together.

Spaziani took shop in middle school and continued to work with his father. But enrolling him in the more advanced BOCES courses once he was in high school was another matter.

"I'll admit, I was apprehensive," said Charles Paggio, the woodworking teacher at then-Schuyler-Chemung-Tioga BOCES of when he learned a deaf/autistic student had enrolled in his class. "I'd never had a student like that before."

Paggio did some research and also asked his wife, an elementary teacher, for advice.

His first fear, of how Spaziani might fit it, was alleviated when he discovered the boy's classmates from Southside were protective and supportive of him.

"He came with friends who rallied around him," Paggio said.

Then he discovered Spaziani's talents for woodworking.

"He was an inspiration to the other students," Paggio said. "Mediocre is not good enough for Augie."

Spaziani's success in the BOCES program carried over to his program at Southside, said his teacher there, Christopher Sayers.

Besides his core classes with Sayers, Spaziani also took algebra classes with other high school students.

"He was a wonderful student and a pleasure to work with," Sayers said. "(In my classes), his lowest grade was 95."

Sayers remembers he also was at first apprehensive when Spaziani started high school.

He wondered how it would work to teach a student through an adult interpreter.

"But after four years, I didn't even think of him as deaf," Sayers said.

Carol Ann Lynch, a teacher for the deaf in the Elmira school district, believes staff and other students have learned more from Spaziani than he's learned from them.

"As long as I've known him, he's grown," she said.

It's made her more open to the possibilities inside every child.

"He makes me smile."

Spaziani's interpreter through secondary school was Penny Stoner, who was with him through all his classes for six years.

"I was very blessed," she said. "He was a wonderful kid."

When Spaziani graduated from high school, Stoner's job was over, but she is still thrilled with the experience.

"He excelled above what anyone thought he would," she said, but then revised that opinion.

"He had the strong support of his family. And Augie never thought he wouldn't succeed."

With those kinds of recommendations, it's not surprising that Paggio suggested Spaziani interview with Susie and John Alexander at E.M. Pfaff after he completed his BOCES program.

E.M. Pfaff has been owned by Susie Alexander's family for more than 60 years. It specializes in custom architectural millwork. The emphasis is on quality and expectations are high.

Spaziani's penchant for perfection quickly made him a valued employee after starting last August.

Susie Alexander said they trusted Paggio's judgment. He had explained that when Spaziani is set on a task, like sanding a piece of wood, it doesn't matter if it's 4 feet long or 21 miles of molding. He will do it the same perfect way.

His co-workers at Pfaff have also accepted him into their close working family, sharing pizza and including him in the regular workplace birthday parties.

The Alexanders have hired several other graduates from Paggio's program.

One is Vincent Macri, 20, of Elmira, who often works next to Spaziani.

He shares a love of woodworking and the pride of accomplishment.

Recently he was assembling a drawer going into a larger project while Spaziani prepared drawers for finishing.

With whirl of saws in the background and the use of face filters during some procedures, conversation isn't a priority among the workers, Macri said.

"Augie is here to work, not chat," Macri said. "He fits right in."

Spaziani's attention to detail is also appreciated.

"I can tell when Augie is the one who stained a piece," said Tracy Hyde, 38, of Endicott, a master craftsman at Pfaff. "He's a perfectionist."

"Augie will do one task and see it through," said Susie Alexander, the company president.

"As far as we're concerned, he has a job here as long as he wants it," John Alexander said.

© 2007 Star-Gazette.