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Veteran Uses Exposure Therapy in Ocala Halloween Haunt

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Jason Jacobowitz used exposure therapy to recover from PTSD after spending time in the military as a photojournalist.

“I saw things that messed me up,” he said. “To get over my fear, I got into Halloween stuff and started taking pictures of it.”

He looks forward to the holiday all year.

“This is my Christmas,” he said.

Last year, Jacobowitz and his associate, Tony Abbondolo, began using his passion to help benefit The Heart of Florida Youth Ranch.

The ranch benefits from their superhero ball and Halloween haunt events. These events are meant to provide activities for children who are residents of the ranch, in addition to raising money to support them.

Jenna Rovira, a case manager at Heart of Florida Youth Ranch, said Jacobowitz has had a positive impact on their organization.

“He’s kind of the brains behind the event,” she said. “He has a great heart and passion for helping our kids.”

The event setup features a long hallway with several doors. Behind each door, a different phobia awaits. The event has branded itself as “exposure therapy” for a variety of fears.

Exposure therapy is a form of treatment that encourages people to face their fears in a safe environment as a way to help “reduce fear and decrease avoidance,” according to the American Psychological Association.

An actor performs at last year's fundraising haunt at Ocala Consulting and Prevention to benefit the Heart for Florida Youth Ranch. Photo courtesy of Tony Abbondolo
An actor performs at last year’s fundraising haunt at Ocala Consulting and Prevention to benefit the Heart of Florida Youth Ranch. Photo courtesy of Tony Abbondolo

Some common fears that will be highlighted are clowns, spiders and dentists.

Children under 13 are free when accompanied by an adult, but are advised that the phobia rooms may be too intense, said Tony Abbondolo, one of the event’s producers.

“I’d say about 50 percent of the kids didn’t make it through last year,” Abbondolo said. “They turned around and went back out the way they came. The other 50 percent were flying out the back door so fast they could have set a land speed record.”

Younger attendees can walk through the “Trail of Treats,” which will be held in front of the building, to get candy as an alternative to trick-or-treating.

In addition to the volunteers from the ranch, a team of about 30 people, including actors, is involved in producing the haunt, said Abbondolo.

A lot of the children have been anticipating the event for months, Rovira said. About 25 kids from the organization will be attending the event.

Children from the Heart of Florida’s Youth Ranch will also be participating in the haunt in a variety of roles.

“It allows them to give back to the community and feel involved,” she said. “The more we can get them out and enjoy, the better.”

They can walk through the haunt as attendees, scare guests as actors in the phobia rooms or pass out candy to younger attendees in the “Trail of Treats.”

“These kids are stuck in the system awaiting adoption or their 18th birthday,” Abbondolo said. “We want to give them something.”

Rovira said events like these help create a sense of normalcy for children in the foster care system.

“We’ve got a great group of kids,” she said. “This is a nice opportunity for them.”

The event, in its second year, will be open from 8 p.m. to midnight on Halloween.

About Caitlin Franz

Caitlin is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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