When a local 4-year-old would not speak, his family felt they had nowhere to turn. But Life Skills was there. After two weeks in its parent training program, his typical forms of communication—screaming, kicking and biting—were translated into 200 new vocabulary words. “All the language was in there, we just had to help him learn how to release it. Once we worked with him, the floodgates opened,” explains CEO Wendy Sullivan.
Unfortunately, Sullivan says this scenario is not uncommon among clients. That’s why Life Skills merged last year with Touch Point Autism Services—to reach an increasing number of families impacted by autism who need life-transforming services. Now the largest social services agency of its kind in Missouri, the nonprofit serves a total of 4,200 children, teens and adults with developmental disabilities, including 3,000 autistic individuals and their families in 95 counties. “We have expanded in all of our service areas—autism services, employment services and community living—and we already are seeing growth after one year,” Sullivan says.
For recently diagnosed families, 'family navigators' are available to help guide them through the steps that are needed to help their loved one. “We teach parents how to be therapists in their own homes,” Sullivan explains. “The parents are really expert therapists after we work with them. They have learned how to unlock that language, and their kids are speaking.”
Some families benefit from regular ongoing therapy, while many get the maximum benefit from the agency's intensive, two-week training program. Therapists can go into families' homes and help them each step of the way. Some kids don’t like to be touched, are unable to sit through mealtime, or have trouble bathing or sleeping. “We work with families in their homes on real-life issues,” Sullivan says. “After parent training, we see families who are happier and doing things together and enjoying their child.”
Sullivan says all of this would not be possible without the dedication of more than 500 agency volunteers. Two of those volunteers, Tom Caruso and Dan Kelley, have made a particularly large impact on the organization. Through spearheading the fourth annual Autism Invitational golf tournament in June at Boone Valley Golf Club, they helped raise $250,000—up from the $131,000 total of last year’s event.
Caruso and Kelley are driven by personal connections with autism. “They put their whole hearts in the tournament,” Sullivan says. “They want every family who needs these autism services to get them. And that kind of volunteer effort is really what keeps us going.”
Additional major fundraising events include the Par-Tee and Tee It Up Dinner Auction & Golf Tournament July 28 and 29 at Meadowbrook Country Club and the Festival of Trees each year on the Wednesday following Thanksgiving.
These fundraising dollars, as well as government funding, help Life Skills serve families who need assistance. “For most people who come to us, even if they don’t have the money, we are able to offer them some services,” Sullivan notes.
And for many clients, that ability to receive early intervention opens a new world. Because when it comes to autism, early intervention is key, and sooner equals better, she adds. “Early intervention can make a huge difference. Among those we help before age 3, about half the kids will be mainstreamed into regular kindergarten classes, nearly indistinguishable from their peers.” While research proves sooner equals better, Sullivan believes it’s also never too late. Life Skills exists to help individuals with developmental disabilities of all ages, learn, live, work and participate in the community.