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Event provides comfortable setting for special-needs children

Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Travis Roe, 5, of Irwin laughs after having his photograph taken with the Easter Bunny at the Westmoreland Mall on Sunday, March 17, 2013, in Hempfield Township.

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Monday, March 18, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

As his mother watched nearby, 5-year-old Travis Roe walked over to the Easter Bunny on Sunday evening in the Westmoreland Mall and gave the furry, costumed character a huge hug.

“Stop it, Easter Bunny,” Travis said, smiling and slipping away, back to the safety of his mother, as the bunny tapped him playfully on the nose and belly — but not before a photographer captured the memory forever on a digital print.

Similar scenes are repeated in malls every spring, but Sunday's encounter was special for Travis because were it not for ABOARD's Autism Connection of PA, the boy might not have gotten a chance to see the Easter Bunny.

“He has a lot of difficulty waiting in line,” said Travis' mother, Lisa Roe of Irwin, shortly before his appointment with the bunny. “We've only been here a few minutes, and he's already asking, ‘Is it my turn?'”

Families of children with autism were invited to the hourlong event after the mall had closed. Lights and music were dimmed for the children's sake.

“It's a more relaxed environment,” said Ted Kopas of Hempfield, who along with his wife, April, brought their two sons Alex, 16, and Quinn, 10, to the mall. Alex has autism, and his younger brother has Down syndrome, Kopas said.

“In big crowds, there's a lot of noise and pressure,” said Kopas, a Westmoreland County commissioner. “This is easier on parents, too, because it allows us to relax without having to worry about other people.”

Hanna Frye, 5, played with her younger sister Adelyn, 3, as she awaited her turn with the Easter Bunny. Their parents, Shawn and Heather Frye of Latrobe, said Hanna would not have had the patience to wait in a long line otherwise.

“It's really, really nice,” said Heather Frye. “There aren't a lot of people, so there's not a lot of anxiety.”

ABOARD held similar events in other malls this spring and arranged for visits with Santa in December, said Lu Randall, the advocacy's group's executive director.

Randall said the goal is to make the children comfortable enough so they can one day visit Santa or the Easter Bunny without special accommodations.

Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or

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