The Remarkable Story of ‘The Dragon Master’

The Remarkable Story of 'The Dragon Master'

Santino Stagliano was five years old when he was diagnosed with autism. At that time, the only way he could communicate his feelings was by drawing dragons. The first time he told his mom he loved her was by drawing a mother and baby dragon. She encouraged him to keep drawing dragons with his markers to aid him in his communications skills. And that was how it all started.

One of seven children of Lisa and Mario Stagliano, Santino's reputation as "The Dragon Master" (the nickname given him by his younger brother) was established in April  2015 when his mother posted on Facebook one of his dragon drawings on a T-shirt  Within days there were hundreds of requests for his dragon T-shirts from friends and family throughout South Philadelphia, where the family lives in a row home on Wolf Street near Third. Since then he has created a website and sold several thousand T-shirts in all 50 states and 12 foreign countries for $5 each, the price set by Santino. When the orders continued to increase, the family decided to start having them printed.

With the money he made Santino started an Art and Sports program for autistic and disabled children in the Philadelphia area and he is planning a "prom" in May 2016 for the all of kids who participate in that program. He also decided to donate half of his money to the Center for Autism, a non-profit that Lisa said has changed her son's life by teaching him how to communicate his feelings, solve problems and understand social cues. "I don't want to be the only one who gets the money," Santino said. "I want to help other kids with autism."

Meanwhile, what started out as a communications exercise for Santino has expanded into an enterprise involving the extended Stagliano family that is now known as The Dragon Team http://santinosdragon.myshopify.com/. And people throughout the area, inspired by Santino's example, have also gotten involved in a variety of ways, including donating hundreds of markers and T-shirts.

For example, Dr. Michael Anthony Troiano, who has a medical practice in South Philadelphia, has offered to match the money Santino donates to the Center for Autism. "I'm doing this to give back to those who have given me so much and to let (Santino) know he 's not in this alone," he said.

Tracey Wojnar, a pediatric nurse who works with cancer patients at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, saw Lisa and Santino delivering T-shirts one evening and said she'd like to order one. When Santino later asked his mother why Wojnar was wearing hospital scrubs, she told him that she works with kids who have cancer. "He immediately drew a dragon that was a nurse with a tear in her eye," she said. "And when I asked him what the tear was for, he said, 'For the cancer kids.'"

The impact that Santino has made in such a short time is unbelievable, according to his cousin Elisa, who is Vice President for Programming at Santinos Dragon Drawings INC. "He has been able to come out of his shell and speak at schools — talking about autism and making other kids understand how similar he really is to them," she said. "He has donated money to special education programs at local schools so that they can purchase things they need to help them learn better."

And, she noted, he has received a number of awards, such as the Center for Autism Award, the Dragon Master Award and the Art of Life Award, as well as a Proclamation from Philadelphia's City Council.

Not bad for a 10-year-old boy.