Hope for autism

Hands down, the best part of my job is meeting interesting people. Such was the case last March when I began exploring the world of autism that swirls through JMU — a story that grew bigger and better with each person I met. Every one led me to another until — a dozen interviews later — I had a picture of an amazing community.

But, first, let me back up… Eight years ago, during the university’s centennial celebration, I met a man I remembered as “Robert.” He was new to the JMU community and handled the plethora of signage for our yearlong celebration. At the time, Robert said he and his family had  moved to the Valley, seeking services for two sons who were diagnosed with autism. I’m not sure why his name stuck in my head, but it did. So last spring when the communications team decided to explore autism for an upcoming issue of Madison magazine, I called Robert — not knowing if he would even be willing to talk to me.

Fortunately, he was. In fact, Robert Weese was eager to talk. He and his family had discovered here in the Valley an invaluable network of support. I asked him what he hoped would come from telling his story. His answer was succinct: “Education,” he said. “Education is the key.” People need to be educated, so they understand individuals with autism, their strengths and their challenges.

Several years ago, I glimpsed the impact of education on autism when I interviewed Gay Finlayson. Decades before, she had searched far and wide to understand her daughter. It wasn’t until she brought her to JMU’s Early Childhood Development Center that she learned her daughter had autism. Gay’s story is emblematic: The more people I talked to, the more I realized that when the needs of the autism community join with the abilities and potentialities of higher education everyone benefits.

Garrett, Robert and Laurie Weese

Garrett, Robert and Laurie Weese

A personal journey

In my mind, Robert Weese and his wife Laurie are heroes, although they would both say their three sons — Nathan, Garrett, and Connor — are the real heroes. Robert has become an  advocate for autism — and perhaps most importantly — he’s become a person autism families seek out for direction. Laurie, too, has met the challenge. In addition to doing — as Robert describes —“an ungodly amount of research” to help her own family, she earned a master’s degree in counseling in hopes of helping others as well. Like her husband, Laurie is eager to educate people about autism.

In exploring this story, I met Trevor Stokes, a professor of graduate psychology with a charming Australian accent and a bent for explaining complex issues. He took me down the road that so many autism parents have traveled and explained how his field, Applied Behavioral Analysis, has improved the future for many. He told me about JMU’s innovative Inter-professional Autism Clinic that marries ABA with Occupational Therapy and with Speech and Language Pathology into an innovative and collaborative therapy that benefits children with autism, but also benefits their parents and JMU students as well.

I explored the role that JMU’s College of Education plays. Keri Bethune, coordinator of JMU’s autism certificate program, explained how JMU students learn through interacting with students in local classrooms — and vice versa. Keri, herself, spends countless hours in local schools directing, advising and assisting JMU students and local teachers in becoming more and more adept at what they do.

And then there was Scott Hand, director of pupil personnel services for Rockingham County Public Schools. Scott’s supervisory role not only links local families and schools to state services, but he, personally, took the time 8 years ago to introduce the Weese family to local schools.

233225 Autism Clinic-1082Through JMU’s Institute for Health and Human Services — a compassionate giant in the valley —the Weeses and other families also have the opportunity to work with professionals like Liz Richardson, occupational therapist, and Marsha Longerbeam, speech and language pathologist. Not only do they work independently and with IPAC, Liz and Marsha run a summer camp for children with autism. Liz and Marsha, like many JMU faculty, also have professional private practices, increasing the opportunities for local families to find help. Briana Priester’s Studio B for Living LLC is another. She is an instructor in the School of Music and a licensed music therapist who has worked with Garrett Weese, helping his language skills through music.

Families like the Weeses are extraordinary — and also ordinary, as I learned from JMU student Allison Lindsey, who has grown up with two siblings diagnosed with autism. In Allison I found an amazing capacity to see people with autism as valuable individuals and to meet their needs with a remarkable selflessness and compassion. I saw the same kind of caring in senior health sciences major, Carly Delaney, who has worked with Garrett Weese for multiple years as a student volunteer. She adores Garrett and the affection is returned in kind. Carly is one of many students who volunteer with these special children and young adults.

Then there was Debi Kipps-Vaughan, a licensed clinical psychologist and faculty member in graduate psychology. More than a year ago, when Julie Strunk, professor of nursing, approached her with the observation that local autism families needed extra support, Kipps-Vaughan knew exactly what to do. She and Strunk teamed up to form a support group for families with adolescents with autism. 233225 Autism Clinic-1074Every person I talked to gave me one more strand of a loosely tied and highly adaptable network of services and opportunities.

A few weeks ago, in talking with Robert Weese again, I learned about yet another: an utility locator in the Facilities management named Jack Martin, who runs a baseball league for disabled children.

Two of my favorite interviews were with Micah Hodges and Ted Aronson, JMU seniors who have autism. Their personal stories and the insight I gained into the challenges that older students face were as interesting as they were inspiring. I also met Brett Tjaden, professor of computer science, who volunteers to advise enrolled students like Micah and Ted. I learned more about young adults with autism from Matt Trybus, assistant director of disability services. His understanding of disabilities like autism offers valuable support to students like Micah and Ted. If there is an incubator of caring that pervades the Madison community and spills generously out into the local community, I found it in the autism community. As a writer, it was an amazing journey. There is no doubt that all of these individuals epitomize the very best of what it means to Be the Change.

To read the full story, “Hope for Autism” go to this link on the JMU website: http://www.jmu.edu/stories/2015/hope-for-autism.shtml

If you haven’t watched the video embedded above, scroll back! My colleagues Chris Meyers, Mike Miriello and Justin Roth did an amazing job telling JMU’s autism story.

And if you’d like to learn more about what it’s like to be a college student with autism, read “Micah and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” here: http://www.jmu.edu/stories/2015/aronson-and-hodges.shtml

Sayo’s hope for better lives

While James Madison University is located in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, a world away from some of the world’s challenges, the impact of JMU is hardly isolated. In our next two blog posts, JMU staff writer Janet Smith (’81) and Associate Professor of middle, secondary and mathematics education Michelle Cude illuminate what happens when the Madison spirit travels to distant lands and how such an intersection of cultures can bring positive change on both sides of the Atlantic…..

A dream, a haven, a reality

By Janet Smith (‘81)

kenya 1 088When Alice Sayo arrived at James Madison University in 2011 as an international exchange fellow, she quickly discovered she was among kindred spirits.

The public high-school principal found JMU’s Be the Change attitude in her College of Education faculty and student colleagues and soon felt comfortable sharing her dream for a new school in her hometown of Narok, Kenya, where the closest public school is about 6 kilometers away.

Only four years later, the Nasaruni Academy for Maasai Girls – Sayo’s hope for better lives – is a growing reality since its establishment in 2012 with 13 students.

Nasaruni, which means “haven” in the Maasai language, is just that for 50 girls enrolled in grades K-3 of the day school. With four teachers plus a volunteer student teacher on staff, the girls are learning English, Swahili, social studies, math, geography and sciences in the standard curriculum required by the Kenyan government.

The academy is their haven from a future without education that usually results in a lifetime of employment as babysitters or domestic workers or arranged marriages at ages 14 or 15, according to Alice Sayo’s husband, Bishop Moses Sayo, who visited JMU in the spring semester. He serves as assistant director of the academy led by his wife.

kenya smcam1 143“All along she had this dream,” Moses Sayo recalled. He related that his wife’s life did not follow the usual Maasai path after the death of her father. Her mother and an older brother wanted more for Alice, the 11th of 12 children, and made sure she graduated from high school in Kenya and went on to higher education.

During her International Leaders in Education fellowship at JMU, she was “inspired that anything is possible,” Moses said. And Alice had more than a dream in her quiver of resources. She had support, including monetary support, from her JMU friends. Members of the social studies methods class she was enrolled in at JMU raised money to help purchase 5 acres of land for the academy.

Alice’s dream spurred the members of Future Social Studies Educators at JMU to dream big and join her in making a real difference. FSSE exists so future social studies teachers can network with each other and the outside education community to better prepare for teaching.

The organization, with Dr. Michelle Cude, associate professor of middle, secondary and mathematics education, as faculty advisor, views Nasaruni Academy as its main charity.

Alice and Moses Sayo

Alice Sayo and Bishop Moses Sayo

Brandi St John, FSSE’s vice president of administration and service, said the organization’s sustained commitment to the school has led to the purchase of desks for the classroom and collection of toothbrushes and other personal supplies the girls may need. “Over the past year, we have exclusively been focusing on raising money for a dormitory so that the school can have more girls attend. We have also been in contact with H2O for Life and are working to have our school on their list of sites that people can fund to help build the girls a well for fresh water.”

Michele Cude and Alice Sayo

Michele Cude and Alice Sayo

St John, a history major who will complete her master of arts in teaching degree in 2016, sees supporting the Nasaruni Academy as important in her future role as a social studies teacher. “I chose to teach social studies because I want to help students see the global impact that each of us can make on any given day.”

Her involvement with FSSE and the academy has given St John a clearer, more specific illustration of the educational plight of girls internationally. “We all know that in other parts of the world women do not get a chance to be educated, but until you know of a particular group and spend time learning and helping those girls, you don’t think much of it and after a while they become an afterthought. The Nasaruni Academy has truly show me what it is like to fight for an education and how hard it is to gain that education.”

kenya smcam1 064

“I hope to bring everything that I have learned and the experiences I have gained from my work with the Nasaruni Academy, Dr. Cude and Bishop Sayo into my classroom and hopefully show my students what education and cultural values are like in other parts of the world and how they can each make an impact in other parts of the world from their desks in the United States.”

Moses Sayo, who is now back in Kenya, said while visiting JMU, “I am thrilled to realize we have like-minded people here at JMU. We are making connections to make things happen. I find great inspiration in that.”

kenya 1 238To learn more visit these websites:




Photographs courtesy of Michelle Cude

Unbreakable bonds

Good teachers have one thing in common. When children “graduate” from their classrooms, their students never escape their caring. Even when time and life intervene, the bond between teachers and their students goes on, even in abstentia. It is an unbreakable bond because every student takes away something from a teacher, and all teachers give away a little part of their hearts.

A few weeks ago, we received a comment on an older blog post, Paying it forward, about JMU housekeeper/musician Todd Shifflett who gives a concert for the residents of Wampler Hall twice each year. The comment was initially a question: Was this the little boy whom Ann Richards (’74) once taught?

Ann wrote: “I am a 1974 Early Childhood Education graduate of Madison College. I read your story on Todd Shifflett, the “singing housekeeper.” What a wonderful gift of talent and caring he gives the students. I am wondering, Todd, did you live in Elkton and go to Elkton Elementary School? If so, you are probably the Todd Shifflett I taught in kindergarten back in the late 70′s or early 80′s! I remember you as a very sweet little guy, and your mom was such a sweet lady. Looks like you are doing great!”

While I was getting in touch with Todd to check, Ann remembered more about the little boy.

“I feel certain it is Todd, and there is a definite resemblance to the little boy I remember. I saw him when he was a teenager at a Harlem Globetrotters game at JMU about 20 years ago. He came over to me and remembered me even though he hadn’t seen me since he was 7 or so, as I was only at Elkton Elementary for four years.”

What impressed me about Ann is that she — like so many teachers — is still interested in her former student. Teachers usually have children for only a year, yet they never seem to forget them. Education endears students to teachers forever, and students to teachers.

My youngest son will never forget his favorite teacher Sue Haley (’79, ’97M). She taught him for two years, first and second grade. He can still tell you everything about bats that he learned when she turned their classroom into a bat cave. When he graduated from high school, she sent him pictures from their class that she had taken of him. He’ll never forget her. She hasn’t forgotten him.

Successful teaching is a profession that always produces change. And for many of us, that change is profound. Perhaps it is because of that change and that teachers interact with us at the most crucial times in our lives that lasting, often lifetime, bonds are forged.

On JMU’s website right now you can read about some dedicated teachers who are producing significant change for students throughout a school system in the northern part of the Shenandoah Valley, Warren County. One of those teachers is Allison Kretlow, a professor in the College of Education. Her commitment to learning stretches far beyond the campus proper and her own COE students.

Allison and the teachers she is helping to mentor are changing the futures of hundreds of children in a real and tangible way. She and her colleagues are changing lives, not unlike Ann Richards did at Elkton many years ago when she taught Todd. Yes, JMU’s Todd Shifflett is indeed Ann’s former student. “Todd had a good heart as a little boy,” Ann wrote, “and it warms my heart to see what a caring man he is today.”

And Ann, the teacher, knows all about caring.

To read about the Warren County Reading program that is changing lives, visit: http://www.jmu.edu/bethechange/stories/warren_county_reading.shtml

And don’t skip the video.  I’m sure the little boy who got 104 words will never forget his teacher.  You’ll want to cheer!

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