“Every time I go, I feel excited. It feels like my home. On Halloween, I even decorate it like it’s mine.”
Christina Mendez is a proud mother of 2, autism advocate, and long time traveler to the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. A native New Yorker, she has been a guest of our Pocono Mountain Villas resort (formerly The Villas at Tree Tops and Fairway) for over 30 years. Christina and her family will be taking over our Instagram this weekend to share their Pocono Mountain adventures.
When did you discover the Poconos?
When I was about 10, my aunt and uncle had a timeshare there so we used to go for their week. They would also rent houses (villas) for parties. We’d think of where we could all go together. It’s always been a family tradition.
Do you remember the feeling you had when you first visited Pocono Mountain Villas (formerly Tree Tops and Fairways)?
I’ve been going there for 30 years now. Every time I go, I feel excited. It feels like my home. On Halloween I decorate it like it’s mine. [laughs] People were saying “You’re crazy, Christina” but I did! I decorated my home. I put a skeleton on the door and brought stuff to decorate. I had little jack-o-lanterns in front of the home that was not mine, but I felt like it was. It’s my treat to feel like I have a home, even if only for 2 days. I can’t remember the little girl feeling, but I know the adult feeling and am sure that’s how they feel.
As a New Yorker, what do you look forward to when escaping to the Poconos
Having a dining room is a luxury! We don’t have a roomy kitchen here. I have such a big family. My father has 15 brothers and sisters. They all have about 3 kids each. Finding a place hat has enough room for a family gathering is a challenge. The last time we were there [Pocono Mountain Villas], we rented 5 villas at their max. We have that huge of a family.
Even my immediate family—my mother, grandmother, aunt, my kids—doesn’t have a space where we can sit down at the dinner table together without being completely on top of each other. Our Pocono Mountain vacations are the closest thing to a home that these kids have ever seen. We don’t know anyone who owns a home. We don’t own a home. It’s just where we live. This is their treat. The villas here resemble that home-like feel that people show on TV. It’s an amazing feeling.
With your son, Damien, is this your first experience having someone in the family with autism?
He is the only one in our family with autism so that was very tough. It’s a cultural thing, too, when it comes to mental health. My family’s from the Dominican Republic. When he was first diagnosed, there was a lot of denial – “It’s all in your head. Don’t listen to that doctor”— so it was very hard for everyone. It took us some time to come together. Now, they totally understand that Damien is different. They accept him and know how to interact with him better than anyone. It just took time to get to that point. Latin folks and African American folks wait the longest to diagnose and get their children treatment because they go through a really long denial phase. There are numbers to prove this. We need to get better at embracing it and taking it on. I didn’t want to be that person.
In the early years, what helped you bridge that knowledge gap with the broader family?
At first, I was in denial. When the doctor broke the news, I thought she said “artistic” and started agreeing with her saying that Damien loves to draw… I had no clue. I didn’t think anything bad of it until she started talking about all the things he won’t be able to do. I was breaking down. Delivering that message to them was tough. At the time, I didn’t know enough about autism to be able to fight back and say “No.”
Autism awareness didn’t begin reaching the Spanish media until much, much later. Actors started coming out. Celebrities started talking about it. But no one in the Latin community was coming out. I thought, “No one? No novella stars? Nothing?” When Damien was diagnosed, the numbers reflected one in every 237 kids. Now, it’s 1 in every 33 or 37 boys have autism. Now that it’s this big, it’s everywhere so it’s more familiar.
That’s why I speak about it and am so open about it. I’m Latina. It hurts. It bothers. We’re fine. He’s living. I have to repeat that to people in our language so they understand that it’s okay. It takes other people you trust to speak about it.
On social media, are there communities you’ve found helpful?
I found Autism Speaks which is a foundation I started working with because I was so grateful for everything that they provided. Autism Speaks has branches in different major cities and is run by parents who have children on the spectrum. They meet up and have all kinds of resources for families. If you search the hashtags #AutismWarriors and #AutismMoms, you’ll find a ton of people who are walking the same path. It’s a lot easier to get support nowadays with social media as a resource.
Considering your son’s needs, what do you look for when choosing a place to vacation?
I think you guys are very autism friendly. Pocono Mountain Villas is close to the city and offers everything that an autistic person would want which is quiet and peace. Just relaxation. It’s a good spot. My kids have very different vacation styles and I can’t divide myself into so many pieces, so my mother and grandmother are my support team. I’ve never done a trip without them.
For me, what I look for is:
- Does it fit the family of all ages? I travel with toddlers, a teenager, senior citizens, and an adult so that’s important.
- Are there activities for senior citizens? Does the place have something that my support team can do on their own? We’ve played bingo here before, so I know Pocono Mountain Villas has that.
- Does it have some quiet? When Damien feels overwhelmed, those spaces help.
If I could have grandma kind of hold Damien at the arcade while Cailey (age 7) plays in the pool, that’s the best situation. I always think about my support system when planning our vacations. They’ve supported me throughout the months and years so I make sure that when we go on vacation, they have their own space to enjoy their own activities, too.
The Poconos to them is a reliever. I know that everyone is okay, that they feel comfortable, and they also feel that they’re at a home. My mom’s happy getting firewood and doing the little things that we don’t get to experience in the city.
How do you introduce new experiences to Damien?
We have a calendar that we create every year. He puts on there everything he wants to do. Every year, we go to Sesame Place. Every year, we go to the land of make believe. These are things that he’s done since he was 2 years old and are still on his calendar. Every year we go to the Poconos. Those are specific experiences we’ve had when he was younger and he prefers to have on his calendar.
When I do introduce new things, we watch a lot of YouTube videos and other families’ experiences. I love the Youtuber age that we’re in right now. Everyone has an experience they’ve recorded. That’s amazing for me because I’m able to show it to him, then we can start mapping things out. We look at the company’s website, pictures. TreeVentures is something we’ve been looking into lately. We’ve been on Instagram looking at hashtags and photos to see how it is. He’s never been to TreeVentures. We’ve seen it before, but haven’t actually experienced it. He’s excited. I’m a spontaneous girl, but I plan when it comes to family trips.
For a kid who is Autistic and going into a new environment on vacation, are there activities that you’ve seen him use to calm himself if the environment is getting overwhelming?
Yes. His favorite is arcades. That’s a one person sport, so he doesn’t feel intimidated by having to speak to someone or react to them. He can go into one game and play it on his own. Any kind of one person sport, Autistic kids feel more comfortable. They don’t feel embarrassed that they’re not meeting some type of deadline or beating someone. They’re not that competitive kind of folk.
I’ve also found that the pool is a great place for him. He likes to be near the edges and look at the scenery. He enjoys looking at other people, but doesn’t like the splashing in front of him. That’s something he can control. I bet he would enjoy that Blue Lightning Tubing because he likes the thrill of rides and experiences like that. It’s a solo activity. TreeVentures might not be his thing, but I think it’ll be good to try and get him out of the bubble. When we go to the Poconos, he loves the balcony. He loves to birdwatch and knows all these different species of birds. He’ll say “What I hear chirping is a…” and he’s right! He likes calm, collected, and one person activities.
Is he a birdwatcher at home?
We live on Central Park, so that’s about as close to nature as we get [laughs]. We face a building in Manhattan so the birds he sees are pigeons. Sometimes, we will see some funky birds that he’ll identify, but no. Most of the bird watching he does is in the Poconos or when we go to the Bahamas. I don’t where he found this skill, but he loves it. When we went to the Bahamas, he impressed the guide by being able to identify a bird that no one else could place.
Does your daughter share that interest in nature?
No, Cailey’s a sassy girl. [laughs] She likes going to the spa (even though she’s 7), shows, and loves girly stuff. They’re completely different.
With your daughter being as outgoing as she is and your son preferring his alone time, are there activities that your kids enjoy together on vacation?
These two… sometimes they surprise me. They enjoy dancing together – that’s a must. They’re never afraid to cut a rug.
What would you recommend to parents who plan to visit the Poconos for the holidays?
I love the hayrides on Halloween! The scary ones. I absolutely love that. That’s by the TreeVentures. Hands down, that’s our favorite thing to do. It scares the heck out of us every year, but we love it.
We go pumpkin and apple picking in the area. There’s a farm like area about a mile away. We pick our pumpkins and bring them back to the house to make Jack-O-Lanterns. There’s not much space in New York, so this is the only place where we can put out a sheet, set up the dining room table and carve our pumpkins together. We roast the seeds. In the summertime, we love picnicking. We’ll pick up groceries and grill. Little things here and there.
Halloween’s a good time. You get all the festivities, but it’s not the highest season.
Yeah and it’s the closest thing to what the kids see on TV of trick or treating somewhere and seeing a bunch of houses. We don’t live in a neighborhood that participates in the trick-or-treat tradition. It’s an adventure for the kids.
What inspires you?
My son is my biggest inspiration. Damien’s not the typical teenager. He’s overcome everything. He speaks numerous languages. He has a job. He inspired me to not be afraid to be different and to work hard at whatever I do. They said he would never be able to accomplish what he has.
Imagine you had a billboard. You could put anything you want on it. Where would you put it and what would it say?
If I could set up a billboard, mine would show people of all types represented—big, small, disabled physically—and say “Be kind to everyone.” I would put it on 1-95 near exit 8.