Program For Autistic Rowers Launches In Sag Harbor

Christian Ciardello, left, rows with his buddy, Lucas Pascale in a summer camp designed for those with autism at the Sag Harbor Community Rowing Club. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

On a lazy August afternoon, an osprey circled overhead, as three young men at the Sag Harbor Community Rowing Club, with the assistance of their helpers, maneuvered double shells down to the water’s edge. With little wind, it was a perfect day for rowing. Four more rowing club staff members and coach Sydney Dollmeyer soon joined them for the start of a two-hour session.

What differentiates this camp, which has met Tuesdays and Wednesdays for six weeks this summer, from others the club offers for adults and kids is that the participants all have autism.

The program is the inspiration of Dr. Lisa Liberatore, whose 23-year-old son Michael is autistic. When he was in school, the family lived in Port Washington, and Michael’s older brother, Alexander, rowed for Chaminade High School.

“Rowing entranced Michael,” Dr. Liberatore said. “He would literally run into the water after the boats.”

Michael was athletic, but traditional team sports like soccer and basketball overwhelmed him.

She initially proposed the idea of offering a rowing program for people with autism to Steve Panzik, the director of PortRowing, who was receptive to the idea.

Dr. Liberatore enlisted a neighbor’s son to join Michael. In early 2014, they started with on-land conditioning before going out on the water for the first time that March. “It was like setting up a wind-up toy,” she said. “They went ‘boom’ out of there.”

Fast-forward to 2021. Recognizing their son’s culinary talents, Dr. Liberatore and her husband, Dr. Dimitri Kessaris, launched the nonprofit Luv Michael in 2015. The organization trains and employs people with autism to make gluten-free granola, which is sold to raise funds for various programs for the autistic. Later, they established USAutism Homes, which provides living arrangements for the autistic that provides them with more choices than they would find in a traditional group home setting.

The couple now owns a home in Southampton, and their son lives with two others along with three support people in a USAutism home nearby. But Dr. Liberatore knew her son missed rowing, and once she learned about the Sag Harbor Community Rowing Club, she approached director Lee Oldak, who agreed to make time for the program during the club’s busy summer season. Her son and two friends, Christian Ciardello, 26, and Dimitri Donus, 19, have made up the inaugural group.

They have been aided by Claude Saturnin, Lucas Pascale, and James Reicer. This summer, four club members, Uma Comfort, Esme Haymes, Colin Mccaghey, and Elizabeth Condren have helped out.

Safety comes first, Mr. Oldak said. Rowers must wear lifejackets, and their boats are equipped with small outrigger-like pontoons for greater stability. “Each rower comes with a support person,” he said. “We taught the support staff first how to row, and once they caught on, we matched them with each of the participants.”

Besides the support staff in the boats with their campers, club volunteers row alongside them in single shells to help direct them in Sag Harbor Cove, and a coach follows in a chase boat, shouting instructions, giving tips, and keeping an eye on other boat traffic.

Ms. Dollmeyer was an All-American at Wellesley College, where she rowed on a national championship-winning team in 2016. She is also a former assistant coach at the school.

On Tuesday, she was focusing on making sure the rowers were developing efficient strokes and not dipping their oars too deeply into the water. She would gather the rowers together to give them their directions, and let the volunteers lead the way across the cove.

“Rowing is one of my favorite sports,” she said. “You can’t read a book or check your phone. You are in the here and now.”

As much as she loves rowing, Ms. Dollmeyer said it is clearly not the most accessible of sports. Sag Harbor, she said, is fortunate to have a rowing club that is open to all.

Mr. Oldak said he saw no reason the program couldn’t be continued next year and beyond. Dr. Liberatore said she believed that once the word got out, the program would grow.

“It’s a great chance to escape and be out on the water,” Ms. Dollmeyer said.