April is Autism Awareness Month
By: NobleHour Special Contributor Dolly Duplantier
More than 3.5 million Americans live with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a complex developmental disability that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. The “spectrum condition” affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. Every one of the 3.5 million individuals have specific strengths and talents that can be used to help others and each one should have the opportunity to achieve the highest possible quality of life.
There are many organizations dedicated to enriching and empowering the lives of teens, adults, and families within the Autism and Asperger community. Autism Empowerment is one such organization. The nonprofit’s vision is to work towards an inclusive society that accepts and respects all youth and adults on the autism spectrum and empowers each person to reach his or her highest potential. The organization offers innovative and inspiring programs, training and services, and opportunities for leadership and volunteerism for those within and supporting the Autism and Asperger community.
Autism Empowerment serves all ages and abilities and promotes four Foundational Pillars of Positivity: Accept – Enrich – Inspire – Empower. NobleHour believes in their mission and awarded their Autism Serves Kids Care Club with a $6500 NobleCause grant to foster volunteerism. The NobleCause grant competition invited high schools, school districts, colleges and universities, and nonprofits to identify and address a local challenge.
The Autism Serves Kids Care Club was created to support youth on the autism spectrum from kindergarten through eighth grade. Younger and older siblings are also welcome to participate. The club is part of a network of generationOn’s Kids Care Clubs, groups of young people who volunteer together and perform meaningful hands-on service projects to help others in their communities and around the world. Led by an adult facilitator, their mission is to develop compassion and inspire a spirit of volunteering in elementary and middle school children.
According to Karen Krejcha, Executive Director for Autism Empowerment, their program began in October 2015. Since that time, 27 children ranging in age from seven to 13 have participated and completed 547.5 hours. Their service projects are designed and adapted by both age and ability level.
The Autism Serves Kids Care Club projects vary, but are typically created around a specific theme, including Peace and Kindness, Veterans/Military, Hunger and Poverty, Literacy, and Random Acts of Kindness. The organization partners with other groups like the Clark County Veteran’s Assistance Center, the Vancouver Public Library, Clark County Food Bank, Martin Richard Bridge Builder Project, and generationOn.
Krejcha says many of their volunteers are siblings who serve as peer mentors ranging in age up through 16 years old. In addition, as club members have a wide range of ability levels and require different levels of support, at least one parent, guardian, or adult support partner is required to participate in club activities alongside the youth member.
Other volunteers include high school students interested in child development with a familial connection with autism, college students studying autism and wanting practical hands-on experience, and adults on the autism spectrum looking to give back to the community.
“We look for volunteers who self-identify with the following traits: patience, kindness, acceptance, flexibility, openness, and a willingness to learn and understand about autism and the autism spectrum,” emphasizes Krejcha. “There is a popular saying in the autism community, ‘if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.’ What this means is that each person on the autism spectrum is different and has different strengths, gifts and challenges. Although there are often commonalities, (e.g. challenges with communication, sensory issues, motor skills, and executive functioning), how these issues present themselves will be on a spectrum and will be different with each person.”
The Benefits of Serving Others
In addition to helping those in need in their community, the Autism Serves Kids Care Club members and their families also benefit personally from their service projects and volunteering. Krejcha says that frequently kids on the autism spectrum are used to being the recipient of services. “They get used to people doing things to help them, but not so much the other way around. Kids are making friendships with other kids and the shared experience of service learning and doing good in our community has given our club members a lot to be thankful for and proud of accomplishing.”
The service projects provide a quality bonding time and shared experiences with club members and their families. “The kids have an increased knowledge and awareness of social issues in our region and in our country,” says Krejcha. “Many issues like hunger and homelessness seem abstract and difficult to understand, especially for children who have not been exposed to these challenges. Age and ability appropriate curriculum and projects provide the opportunity to discuss these issues with family and peers in a nurturing and safe environment.”
Krejcha also points out that the service activities offer increased social communication with peers, both inside and outside the club, as well as increased compassion and empathy for people experiencing different challenges. She’s noticed increased social engagement among club members, greater participation, and respectful listening when other kids share. “This first became apparent when kids had the opportunity to make wellness kits for homeless veterans and then had the chance to meet some of those veterans and hear their stories,” she says.
Another positive impact is that the kids want to continue volunteering outside of the club. Krejcha says parents have reported increased volunteering in school-related activities, scouting, faith-based activities and an overall desire to help other people and perform acts of kindness. “Quite a few of our club members are choosing to volunteer throughout the month outside of our club gatherings, as well as participate in autism acceptance advocacy for themselves and others. We are also getting requests from the kids and their parents to go back to some of the places we’ve previously volunteered. We’re excited to hear Autism Serves Kids Care Club members making their own suggestions on what activities they’d like to see us do in the future. The enthusiasm has a positive ripple effect and we’re happy to add projects that may be outside our originally planned monthly theme.”
Two of their most rewarding projects so far were making kindness cards and helping the Clark County Food Bank. The kids created laminated SMILE and kindness cards and distributed them to friends, family, classmates, teachers, and neighbors. “The focus was that each one of us, no matter what our age, has the ability to pass along joy, kindness, and a smile to other people,” says Krejcha.
The kids also enjoyed going door-to-door in their community to collect food through Walk & Knock, a one-day food drive. Club members then visited their local food bank to assist the local Humane Society by repackaging donated pet food into serving bags. “The kids enjoyed knowing that in addition to helping local families experiencing hunger, they were also helping to take care of family pets,” says Krejcha. “Another neat thing about this project was that our group volunteered alongside other volunteering groups within the community and were able to have a positive discussion about Autism Serves Kids Care Club."
Krejcha says her organization is so grateful and humbled to be a NobleCause grant recipient. “The money received has helped secure the base funding for many of our service projects and activities from April 2016 to March 2017. It has assisted with training, support, and recognition of Autism Serves Kids Care Club members, as well as our youth and adult volunteers. The funds allowed us to purchase additional sensory tools for the club that promote body regulation, increase focus, and lead to more effective learning. Funds also allowed us to increase and improve the way we track and report program results.”
It’s incredible how volunteering can benefit and impact so many lives in so many ways. NobleHour is proud to support nonprofits, high schools, colleges and universities in their efforts to nurture acts of goodness and inspire greater community-mindedness and participation. It is exciting to see organizations like Autism Empowerment and their Autism Serves Kids Care Club bring lasting change and improvements to their communities. Don’t let age or ability prevent you from joining in the movement to help others! Just look at what these amazing kids have accomplished in such a short period of time. What are you waiting for?
Photo credit: Autism Empowerment and Autism Serves Kids Care Club
The NobleCause grants, organized by NobleHour.com, were made possible by an anonymous donor within the GiveWell Community Foundation, which serves Polk County, Florida. Since 2007, NobleHour has proven to be the volunteer management solution for organizations across the nation. With its robust online platform, NobleHour enhances community engagement with a variety of innovative and transformative tools for finding, tracking, and measuring volunteer, service‐learning, and community service initiatives. With offices in Lakeland, FL, and Portland, OR, the NobleHour team is dedicated to empowering good in communities across the country.
Dolly Duplantier is a freelance writer, editor and social media specialist. She is the mother of three children, two in college and one in high school. Writing about people and organizations making a difference is one of the best aspects of her job!