By GREGORY ZELLER //
From the Heartbreak to Heroism file come Joan Bucchino and Amazing Grace, the angelic inspiration behind two distinct empowerment efforts.
Bucchino, who lost her 13-year-old daughter to the rare metabolic disorder Sanfilippo syndrome in 2014, is the creator of SmartGAME, a series of six-week pay-it-forward challenges designed to empower youngsters while promoting kind and healthy habits – useful for any youngster, but especially for kids with developmental delays who may need social coaching.
The game is distributed by Bucchino’s Huntington-based 2008 startup, J. Grace Corp., which boasts a second for-profit vertical with a beneficial bent: Leveraging Bucchino’s background in sales – she was an advertising account executive for the New York Daily News and a Xerox account manager – J. Grace Corp. is a third-party reseller of energy-efficient LED lighting systems.
Working with Valley Steam innovator Precise LED and other Island-based distributors – “I can get any brand,” Bucchino noted – the environmentally friendly middleman matches LED-installation rebate programs to clients’ needs. An approved contractor with both PSEG-LI and New York City utility Con Edison, the company occupies a sweet spot in the energy-efficiency chain, according to Bucchino.
“I do the work to get the rebates, then submit to [the utility] on the customer’s behalf,” she said. “I get them rebate checks.”
The LED consulting is going well – Bucchino noted fertile hunting on behalf of Con Ed in “large multifamily buildings” in Queens – and shares some intriguing cross-promotional ties with SmartGAME. The game is designed to involve not only kids but caregivers, teachers and even local community members, giving J. Grace Corp.’s energy-conscious clientele a unique opportunity to support several causes, including their own.
“I can walk into a business, help them change over to energy-efficient LEDs and at the same time help them advertise to their community in a way that really helps a child,” Bucchino said. “Imagine knowing you made a difference in a kid’s life, every time you turn on the light.”
The advertising happens on the customizable SmartGAME board, simple cardstock (make room on the fridge) featuring a long, colorful path. Created by Bucchino and her older daughter Julia – “Grace tends to get all of the credit,” Mom noted, “but Julia is really deserving as well” – the game empowers kids ages 4 to 11 through lengthy challenges, with players advancing by completing daily goals.
If you think Monopoly takes too long, a six-week game probably sounds daunting – but that’s about how long it takes to form a habit, according to Bucchino, and SmartGAME’s daily hurdles are designed to “teach children how to achieve goals independently … while making them really conscious of their behaviors.”
Challenges include the fruit-and-veggie-focused Five Each Day game, Fit Kids USA – daring kids to complete 60 minutes of daily physical activity – and Read It, Write It, Rock It, which leads players down a literary path.
“It incorporates breathing and focusing techniques, and journaling,” Bucchino said. “It’s really a literacy challenge combined with a mindfulness component.”
For special-needs kids – on the autism spectrum, for instance – who may need help with social cues, there’s Let’s Be Friends, which challenges players to share, compliment classmates and otherwise engage in socially constructive ways.
“It depends on the child,” Bucchino noted. “Social skills are a problem for a lot of kids, but most of them have the cognitive ability to understand doing things to move a piece up a board.”
The most popular SmartGAME, especially among J. Grace Corp.’s educational clients, has been Love My Planet, a six-week sustainability quest stressing basic environmentalism.
“It’s called SmartGAME because it really magnifies a child’s ability to learn wellness practices,” Bucchino said. “It focuses them on daily actions and brings in their parents, teachers and community as a joined group.”
That creates “a collective thumbs up” when the kids hit their marks – social-development nirvana, especially for developmentally challenged youngsters who thrive on positive reinforcement.
“It provides a supportive umbrella over the children,” Bucchino said. “And it’s really no work whatsoever for the parent, the teacher or the community business.”
Working with a Michigan-based order-fulfillment center, J. Grace Corp. – a four-person firm headquartered at LaunchPad Huntington – has generated a national audience, with SmartGAME in play in school districts, pediatrician offices and other professional spaces in New York, Connecticut, Florida and Denver, among other places.
Bucchino, who earned a master’s degree in special and general education at Hofstra University, credits the successful empowerment-through-achievement theme to Grace, who was first diagnosed with Sanfilippo syndrome at age 4.
The syndrome involves an enzyme deficiency that hinders the body’s ability to break down complex sugar molecules, impairing cognitive abilities. There’s no cure for the degenerative disease, which can be difficult to diagnose – as was the case with Grace, who went undiagnosed for years despite apparent developmental delays.
Watching her daughter struggle to learn what other kids absorbed naturally was difficult, but ultimately proved a godsend to Bucchino.
“From watching her teachers and watching her learn, I came up with the idea for a behavioral educational game that would primarily teach children how to set and achieve positive goals,” she said.
Through all of the challenges, players are accompanied by characters including Starman James – named for Bucchino’s late brother – and Amazing Grace, an angelic, airborne superheroine complete with halo, wings and a backwards “G” on her chest, representing the fact that her daughter “wasn’t much of a reader or writer,” Bucchino said.
While J. Grace Corp.’s parallel verticals are intricately intertwined, Bucchino – a busy advocate for Sanfilippo syndrome research – is careful to keep her charitable work separated. She gifts large numbers of SmartGAME sets, but those are “grants,” she said, and not part of Grace For a Cure, a Garden City-based 501(c)3 Bucchino launched in 2006 to further the cause.
The entrepreneur estimates she’s given away some 3,000 copies of SmartGAME to nonprofit programs. While she’s deeply involved in other charity and wellness causes –– she hosted the inaugural New York Health and Sustainability Learning Expo, a Brooklyn-based wellness event, in January, and managed the Family Fun Pavilion when the Green Festivals Expo, a national series of sustainability events, visited NYC’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in April – the game that was inspired by one daughter and co-created with another will always be the heart of her efforts.
“I’m not a business that started a cause, I’m a cause that started a business,” she said. “I learned that I can move this cause ahead faster through commercial means, rather than just trying to raise money through fundraisers.”
And that’s just one of several lessons the altruistic entrepreneur has absorbed over the last decade.
“Children are our teachers, in many ways,” Bucchino said. “We react like ‘oh, my god, there’s something wrong,’ but we can flip that around and learn from what’s going on with them.
“I learned how to change the behaviors of thousands of kids at a time, just by watching my little daughter, who couldn’t even speak.”