In 2010, overwhelming devastation strained governments and humanitarian agencies following the earthquake in Haiti. Our teens and young adults saw the troubling images of toppled buildings, ravaged neighborhoods and despondent Haitians. They asked me, “What are we going to do to help?”
My first thought was Haiti is more than a thousand miles away across an ocean… and we know nothing about earthquake recovery or disaster relief. My second thought was YES! Our program is achieving its mission of encouraging our young people to accept responsibility to help the community both near and far. So, we went to work! We signed up to volunteer at MedWish International, a non-profit agency that sends medical supplies to third world countries such as Haiti. We also planned and hosted our first philanthropic event. We performed our play as a fundraiser for earthquake relief and collected $400, which the group chose to donate to Save the Children Haiti.
The Horvitz YouthAbility program of JFSA Cleveland empowers youth with disabilities and at-risk individuals by engaging them in volunteerism. As a YouthAbility coordinator, my team and I encourage our young people to help themselves by helping others. Our days, evenings and weekends are filled with a wide range of philanthropic activities. We garden, maintain a trail in the Metroparks, assist Holocaust survivors, create artwork, perform original plays with positive messages, help the homeless and more. We want our ambassadors to know that they have the responsibility and privilege of representing YouthAbility, the Jewish Family Service Association and all of the other wonderful people like themselves.
Most people referred to YouthAbility were only on the receiving end of services before entering our program. YouthAbility flips the paradigm. Our ambassadors are expected to be community helpers — and nothing less is accepted. Everyone has a gift to give. Everyone has the ability to help. Everybody has the responsibility to use their strengths to do what they can to support the community. It is important that we at YouthAbility volunteer because we are part of “everybody”. Once we had a lovely teenager who dearly wanted to help at her local swimming pool. She was visually impaired, non-speaking and used a wheelchair. We gave her a few bottles of sunscreen and her aide programmed her assistive talking device to ask, “Do you need sunscreen?” In hardly any time, she was off helping the pool guests protect their skin.
Communities that hope to be inclusive reach out to exceptional people and give them help. Communities that achieve inclusivity reach out to exceptional people and give them opportunities to be helpers!
Since our first fundraiser in 2010, our group has raised close to $25,000. Our ambassadors participate in social entrepreneurship projects such as delivering lunches, selling homemade cookies and making handmade greeting cards. Most transactions net between a quarter and a dollar but it all adds up. Our ambassadors keep track of the revenue, cost and net revenue. About three times a year, we host a mini-grant meeting to decide which agencies should receive our monetary donations. In the past, we have given to local, national and international programs. For example, in 2015, we raised $4,500 to support peace-building programs for orphaned refugee teenagers in South Sudan. This past summer we donated money to start a college scholarship fund for students pursuing careers in social work, psychology, special education or a related field. Our YouthAbility ambassadors helped to create the application and they will interview the scholarship finalists.
In the past few months, YouthAbility has been busy with the slew of hurricanes that affected the Gulf this fall. We did a fundraiser for victims of Harvey, collected supplies to send to victims of Irma and Maria, and hosted puppies rescued from Hurricane Nate. Each of these acts are just a small gesture but they are small gestures in the right direction. Our ambassadors are proud to be moving in the right direction with the larger community.
Just last week, I received an email about a school building for students on the autism spectrum which burned in the Santa Rosa fires. It is touching that the sender felt our group could make a small, meaningful gesture to support those students who are struggling without their school building. We are in conversation about what we might do and we are looking forward to helping.
At YouthAbility, we strive to instill a passion for volunteering in everyone we meet. Our ambassadors must know that we all have a duty to serve when we are a part of a greater, connected community. When want our young people to seek out the options in which they can give back in their own way.
A former YouthAbility ambassador described this need for volunteering in her life perfectly. She had a position at Fieldstone Farm Therapeutic Riding Center at the time and on a particularly frigid winter morning, her mom questioned if she wanted to brave the temperatures and still go. She answered emphatically, “Of course I do! Most of the time I feel like a disabled person, but when I volunteer with YouthAbility I feel like a person.”
YouthAbility is young people volunteering. It is simple. It is necessary. It is beautiful.
Cory Irwin calls himself an informal humorist.
He loves to make people laugh. He enjoys being an attentive friend. Take the time one of his friends was in the hospital. Knowing she loved awards shows, Cory live texted the entire Oscars ceremony for her.
“I do not tolerate when people are sad,” says the 24-year-old Ohio native and recent Walsh University graduate. “You will not be unhappy around me.”
Thanks to an amazing support system and loving family, Cory is applying what he has learned with Milestones (social development, work skills, job hunting) to school, during his internship at The Jewish Federation of Cleveland and in his relationships with friends and co-workers.
“This whole interchanging web of support has helped me through the years,” he says. “I had a lot of intervention in public school as well as coaching from Milestones. And of course, my support from family.”
Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your personality?
I try to show empathy and sympathy for others. In the context of who I am, an autistic individual, some people think I’m devoid of emotion. My defense is I put that shell on because I feel everything. People ask, “Why do you make light of situations?” I laugh and am mirthful. Otherwise I would be melting down because of how difficult things are.
What are you passionate about?
I am a reader first and foremost. I went through many of the numerous phases a young boy goes through – stuffed toys, dinosaurs, little figures. I wouldn’t really play, I would just line them up and look. I would get hopping mad if my sisters moved things. But then came the books and out came everything else. When your mother is an English teacher with 27 years in the public education trenches and your father is an amateur civil war enthusiast with books all around the house, you become a reader. The consequence of being a reader is having an extensive vocabulary.
What do you enjoy when you’re not at work?
I like going to the museums around here. I look at the museums differently because I went to a four-year university program to learn to work in museums. When I am at a museum, I see how things are laid out; I notice all the extra things that go into keeping a museum running.
What’s something you have done that you’re proud of?
I was in the Boy Scouts of America. I got the Eagle Rank. That’s the highest rank you can get in the Boy Scouts. Very few people get it.
What are some everyday challenges you face?
Waiting my turn. Raising my hand too much in class. Teachers have to see how other students are doing. I do this today in classes, I have had to watch it again. “You don’t have to raise your hand,” but no, I have to raise my hand or I will shout people down. I do not whisper.
Simple conversation cues are difficult. I have to be retaught, review, re-clarify. I have to keep those muscles exercised.
How did you get to Milestones?
By chance, my family and I were in Cleveland and learned about Milestones. My dad called their free helpdesk and spoke to Miss Haley.
My mom will say the only person who understands me more than she or my father does is probably Miss Haley at Milestones. She has been working with me so I can learn how to talk to my co-workers, advocate for myself and build a career in the field I love. I am learning to trust in my own abilities, my own assertiveness, and not always be second-guessing myself. Haley helped me achieve this.
I am currently working as the Cleveland Israel Arts Connection Intern at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. Milestones forged this new partnership with the Federation which has provided me with the opportunity to contribute my knowledge and skills on a great team.
This is the first experience I found that aligns with my passion within museum studies. This internship is a stepping stone for me to a career in museum education. I am learning so much.
How has Milestones helped you?
Miss Haley also connected me to an Autism Personal Coach, MiKayla. I meet with MiKayla every Friday. She expects me to be looking at things to do such as using my budget and being comfortable doing things by myself, even if a friend can’t join me. I am now getting to the point of doing things on my own. I don’t give myself enough trust and confidence that I can be assertive. But MiKayla and Milestones helped me to develop this.
What do you foresee for the future? What would be your dream job?
Working in museum education. If I’m destined to be a Clevelander for the long term, I would love to work at the Rock Hall, the Cleveland Metro Parks Zoo, the Museum of Natural History or the Museum of Art.
What advice do you have for individuals on the spectrum?
I always have to remind myself daily, “You will get your happily ever after.” But you have to have the patience, trust, strength of will to play the long game to get what you want.
Some people call me a spectrum ambassador. Sometimes I don’t want to be the ambassador. I want a pill available so I can do math, so I can be more social. But I am, for the rest of my life, an autistic individual and I will always need help in certain categories.
My advice: Don’t drown yourself in despair. The label doesn’t define you. You make the label work for you.
Will Sukenik, Cleveland native and community leader, has been actively involved in various causes throughout Northeast Ohio for more than 50 years.
When Milestones co-founder Ilana Hoffer Skoff first reached out to Sukenik, nearly 15 years ago, he was immediately drawn to the organization’s mission. Though he doesn’t have a personal connection to autism, he was familiar with the challenges it presented to families.
“The work that Milestones does in the community is very important,” he says. “There are a lot of families who are struggling and the organization has helped in so many ways. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Ilana. I think she and her staff are doing an absolutely fantastic job.”
Sukenik recognizes the importance of campaigns like Milestones’ Annual Fund and encourages individuals to get involved and give back. Serving as co-chair of the Milestones planned giving committee alongside Steve Rudolph, he is consistently considering the future and an organization’s support in perpetuity.
“Without the support of the Annual Fund, Milestones would not be able to do what they are doing,” he says. “I’m also trying to encourage others to leave a legacy so an organization can be continually supported even after they are no longer around.”
In addition to his involvement with Milestones, Sukenik serves as President of Beachwood-based Properties Management Co. and has held multiple leadership positions in the community including serving as a past board member of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, honorary and life trustee of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, and life trustee of the Jewish Family Service Association of Cleveland.
When Sukenik reflects on all that Milestones has achieved over the years – how the organization serves more than 2,400 parents and professionals each year, the thousands of online resources, the free Helpdesk and an annual autism conference – he sees the difference it is making in the region and beyond.
“The successes have been amazing,” he says. “I would hope that people would consider becoming involved and continue to be involved.”
The Will & Jan Sukenik Foundation will continue to support and fund Milestones and many other worthy organizations for many years to come. Will is co-chair of the Milestones Planned Giving Committee along with Stephen Rudolph.
Molly Mack was at a crossroads.
As a parent of a child on the spectrum, she felt like her family had successfully navigated Daniel’s early childhood years thanks to support and local resources. But Daniel’s teenage years and his looming transition to adulthood presented a whole other set of challenges.
“With this new season of life, I felt like didn’t have someone to turn to,” Molly remembers of that desperate time two years ago. “It was the first time I truly felt alone.”
Had a friend not told her about Milestones, Molly says she would not have found such life-changing resources for her son – and empowerment as a parent. “They have helped me be a better mom to Daniel,” she says. “They are right there, helping me every step of the way.”
How did you first get connected to Milestones?
My husband Tom and I moved our family from a smaller town in Ohio to a western suburb of Cleveland when our son, Daniel, was three. We believed there would be more resources and a greater level of services for him in a bigger city. This was back in 2005. But more recently, with this transition piece to adulthood, I felt at a loss.
I shared how I was feeling with a friend of mine, Sarah, who founded Connecting for Kids. I asked her, “What am I supposed to be doing? I have no clue where to turn.” And that’s when Sarah told me, “You have to call Beth at Milestones.”
How has the Milestones staff helped you?
I called Beth (Thompson) that very day! Beth has been my lifeline. Ever since that first phone call, she has been my coach, navigator and sounding board. This was two years ago, when Daniel was 14.
What kinds of resources and services has your family benefited from because of your affiliation with Milestones?
Beth asked me all about Daniel and our journey. She then made a game plan for steps I needed to take to get Daniel connected with agencies and programs that would likely be part of his future. Milestones had step-by-step checklists and timelines for what we should be doing for Daniel as he progresses through high school and into adulthood. I felt an immediate sense of relief at that very first meeting with her.
Tell us about your son, Daniel.
When diagnosed with ASD as a preschooler, our Daniel lagged behind his peers verbally and socially. He was easily overwhelmed with the world around him – it was exhausting to stay two steps ahead of his sensory sensitivities. Then, he literally stopped napping at age two the very week his first baby brother came home. Those were very long days!
As someone once explained to us, autism is like Swiss cheese: a child can have so many strengths yet there are pockets of weaknesses in random areas. Daniel’s strengths have always amazed us. He taught himself to read and can spell like a spelling bee champ. He has always loved math, historical facts and music. Yet, learning can be difficult for him due to reading comprehension and problem solving weaknesses.
Thanks to the positive approach of our school teams over the years, Daniel enjoys attending school despite these challenges. He is motivated to head off to school every day. That is huge! His teachers consistently report that Daniel wants to learn, rarely complains, works hard and is seen as a positive, can-do guy.
The biggest thing you need to know about our Daniel is his one, overarching, glowing strength: he is an extremely social guy who leaves a positive impression most everywhere he goes. He knows nearly everyone, never forgets a name or face and is genuinely interested in the details of their lives. He has been called The Ambassador of his school and The Mayor of our town. He also has a fun sense of humor. Despite having a social/communication disability, Daniel thrives from his connections with others. We are excited to see where this social gift will take him career wise.
How was Daniel’s transition to high school?
Daniel goes to the mainstream high school in our town. We were intentional about wanting him to be a student at Bay Village City Schools to be integrated with neuro-typical kids. We chose Bay Village because it is an older, more established suburb that is not sprawling and constantly changing. He is a sophomore now at Bay High School and he has absolutely benefitted from the stability and continuity of our school system and town. Some of his most special friends today were neuro-typical peers way back in his mainstream elementary classes. We are grateful for the strong sense of community and inclusion within Bay Village as a whole. Daniel is loved and accepted for who he is by his classmates, parents, teachers and neighbors. We really could not ask for more than that!
Tell us about your hopes for Daniel’s future.
The biggest thing for us is making sure that we help Daniel find a future path – whether school or career — that really capitalizes on his strengths. He’s extremely social and motivated by his connection with people. Ultimately we want Daniel to be safe, happy and self-supporting. We believe strongly that happiness, for everyone, is found when you are able to use the gifts you’ve been given.
Milestones strives to help every individual with ASD reach his/her potential. How do you feel the organization has helped Daniel reach his potential?
This past summer, Daniel got his first real job. He was a busboy at a restaurant. He absolutely loved it. And he’s still working there. The restaurant staff is so supportive – the staff and managers love him and embrace him. It’s so wonderful to see that he can be successful in a competitive work environment. And that is the goal, for him to be successful in a real world environment.
Why is the Annual Fund important?
I will never forget feeling totally lost as I entered this current phase of parenting. Milestones was there for me, and continues to be there for me today. I do not take that support for granted — help is literally a phone call away. The annual fund supports all the amazing work Milestones is doing in the community. It is also nice to know that parents, who may not be able to afford their services, still have an opportunity to access resources thanks to the annual fund.
Why would you encourage someone to give to the Annual Fund?
I support Milestones because the personal coaching I have received from Beth Thompson has truly been priceless! Cleveland is so lucky to have this resource within our community. It is vital that we all help support its efforts at assisting families on this “special journey.”
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Q: How can mindfulness benefit children with autism?
A: Children are more susceptible to their environment through their senses, due to lack of practicing healthy coping skills to help self-regulate and manage their environment. Mindfulness can help to alleviate some of those stressors. Children diagnosed with autism are very sensitive to energy and are attuned to energy that others may not even be aware existed. This sensitivity can make coping with the excessive stimuli/energy of things such as: technology, chemicals/additives in food, fluorescent lighting, ambient noise, perfume/laundry detergent/deodorant, etc., which can be over-stimulating. This can contribute to feelings of anxiety, stress, and feeling overwhelmed. When teaching a child mindfulness practices, we are teaching them how to reduce stress, feel more connected, and how to relax, in order to navigate this intense world in which they perceive.
An example of a mindfulness practice that can be incredibly beneficial to individuals with autism is meditation. However, prior to being able to teach meditative practice, the basic skill that needs to be taught (as ultimately any meditative practice focuses on this) is how to breathe deeply. Some various techniques in teaching deep breathing can include using items such as: bubbles, pinwheels, straws and pom-poms to blow, placing a stuffed animal on their stomach to watch it move up and down, etc. At our center, we have also utilized the phrase (with visual supports) “smell, blow”. We have our students “smell” (flower, lotion, etc.) and “blow” (bubbles, candle, etc.). This assists in slowing down the breath. The use of the breath in a tactile, mindful way, is an excellent way to help these young people have a focus.
Movement is also incredibly important and beneficial to children diagnosed with autism, especially in regards to self-regulation. One can become emotionally balanced through flexibility and a good example of this is through practice of yoga. Practicing yoga not only exercises ones’ physical body, but also assists in processing emotions and thoughts.
Yoga has been suggested to be utilized, especially among individuals with attention issues, that may not be able to sit still to meditate. Studies demonstrated that yoga helped to settle their energy, thereby helping them to be able to meditate more peacefully following this practice. For some children with additional support needs, issues with balance, movement, and sensory processing has built up a state of chronic stress. Yoga and meditation helps to reduce this. Working with the body and helping them to relax is the best way to focus the breath in to the body and help it de-stress through relaxation. When children are relaxed, children are ready to learn.
Mindfulness is all about asking children to pay attention to how they feel, what they are feeling, and how their body feels in the moment. Using their five senses (what you see, smell, taste, touch, and hear) assists in helping to bring them into the “here and now”, the present moment. One of the beautiful things about mindfulness practice is that you can adapt and modify it to be as individualized as each individual child. However, it is important to note that in order to teach mindfulness practice, you must be able to teach from your own practice, and through repetition.
If you want to learn more about practicing mindfulness, here are some recommended websites, books and videos:
American Mindful Research Association
The Center for Mindfulness
Picture Books That Introduce Mindfulness and Meditation to Kids
Mindful Games: Sharing Mindfulness and Meditation with Children, Teens, and Families
Asanas for Autism and Special Needs: Yoga to Help Children with their Emotions, Self-Regulation and Body Awareness
Connected Kids: Help Kids with Special Needs (and Autism) SHINE with mindful, heartfelt activities
Yoga for Autism Education Program
Teaching Yoga to Children with Autism
Adaptive Yoga for Kids
-Stacy Blecher and Natalie Copleand
Stacy Blecher, MA, ATR, CMP, is an Art Therapist at Positive Education Program (PEP) Prentiss Autism Center. She received her Master of Art Therapy from Ursuline College and has been working with individuals diagnosed with autism for the past 13 years.
Natalie Copeland, ASISC, is a Behavior Support Specialist at Positive Education Program (PEP) Prentiss Autism Center. She is currently completing her Master of Science in Social Administration at Case Western Reserve University and has been working with individuals diagnosed with autism and their families for the past 12 years.
Stacy and Natalie jointly presented a workshop titled, “Train Your Brain: Keep Calm and Practice Mindfulness” at Milestones 15th Annual Conference this past June.