Milestones 2017 Honoree Tabatha Devine – Outstanding Educator

Tabatha Devine, Milestones 2017 honoree of the Outstanding Educator Award, says that working with individuals on the autism spectrum has helped her become a more compassionate, caring and understanding person.

“To make others look past the disability and to see the person, I’ve always thought it was necessary to educate those around the person with special needs,” Tabatha says. She also strives for “more” for her students: more opportunities, more experiences, more adventure. “I always wanted my students to participate in prom, sporting events, graduation, mainstream classes and become competitively employed.”

For the past 15 years, Tabatha has served as a Transition Coordinator for the Westlake City School System, working with students with disabilities. For Tabatha, going above and beyond meant becoming a class advisor so her students could attend prom for the first time. It meant becoming a coach so her students wouldn’t feel intimidated by others and be given a fair chance. She made sure her students attended graduation ceremonies with the rest of the student body while providing all support necessary to make this happen. She approached area businesses to promote her students’ abilities and to help create positions and provide support to individuals who may never have thought to hire a person with special needs.

Prior to working at Westlake City Schools, Tabatha served extensively in the region as an Intervention Specialist, including at St. Vincent St. Mary’s High School in Akron (where she introduced inclusion and helped integrate students with special needs into traditional classrooms); at Coventry High School, also in Akron (where she founded the school’s first classroom for students with developmental disabilities), and at Lakewood High School (where she helped bring special needs students together with mainstream students in a literacy program).

Tabatha has worked for multiple group homes, activity centers and has attended meetings and court hearings to advocate for students and their rights. She spends her summers working for the Cuyahoga Employment Partnership (CEP) as a Job Developer and has served on the Milestones Strike It Big committee for the Westside for the past three years raising funds to help local families impacted by autism.

How do you feel your efforts have impacted the autism and special needs community?

Over time, I’ve come across many people who are judgmental and prejudiced without knowing anything about the person who stands before them. The belief that the disability comes before the person is one of the biggest obstacles I think this population deals with on a daily basis. To make others look past the disability and to see the person, I’ve always thought it was necessary to educate those around the person with special needs.

So when asked how do I feel my efforts have impacted the autism and special needs community? I say through reaching out to others to show them how to become friends with, to participate with, to work with and/or alongside, to employ and to advocate for people with special needs to provide a person with a sense of belonging, pride, empowerment and hope.

How has helping others shaped your life?

Because I have worked with, alongside and for people who have autism or special needs, it has helped me to become a more compassionate, caring and understanding individual. My experiences have helped me to look at things differently because I try and view our world through their eyes. It helps me to stand stronger because I chose to be a part of their world. A parent once wrote that their child would make a difference in this world and he knew this because he felt just by knowing his child with autism, it had changed his own life for the better.

What is your message to inspire others to serve the autism and special needs community?

If you take part in making positive changes in the life of a person with autism or someone with special needs, know that your life too, will change forever. You will try harder, care more and live your life better because they will inspire you!

Milestones 2017 Honoree Lucas Estafanous – Personal Achievement

For Lucas Estafanous, 18, Milestones 2017 honoree of the Personal Achievement Award, the sky’s the limit. Though as a young child he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and later, at age 13, diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, Lucas, with the help and support of his family and the Milestones community, pushed forward to pursue his passion – mathematics.

The Orange High School senior is known by his math teachers and peers as a skilled test taker. He is admired for his ability to solve complex equations with finesse. Which is why, this fall, Lucas will attend Case Western Reserve University where he will major in mathematics.

“It felt really good when I got my acceptance letter,” he says. “College will be a really cool experience.”

In addition to this major accomplishment, Lucas has been an intern at Milestones for the past two years. During his internship, Lucas has learned hard and soft employment skills. Milestones has benefitted greatly from his ability to successfully complete a wide variety of tasks in a busy office environment.

When Lucas is not hitting the books or interning, he enjoys hobbies including tennis and a variety of activities on his computer (he says he hates when people generalize video games in conversation).

How do you feel your efforts have impacted the autism and special needs community?

I feel like I have changed the way that people view autism. They may have not been educated on how wide of a spectrum autism covers, and I hope meeting me has opened their eyes a little bit.

How has helping others shaped your life?

Every time I change someone’s perspective on ASD I feel like I’ve made one more step in the right direction.

What is your message to inspire others to serve the autism and special needs community?

 I want to show people that not all people with autism are the same. That sometimes a person on the spectrum will have more in common with their neuro-typical friend than another person with ASD.

Milestones 2017 Honoree Saundra Jordan – Parent Tribute

As a Parent Mentor for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Saundra Jordan, our 2017 honoree of the Parent Tribute Award, has served Cleveland parents for 13 years. As a parent of a child (now an adult) with a disability, her daughter’s success is a testament to Saundra’s dedication. She is a proud mother of a college graduate, which has provided fuel in effectively mentoring countless parents over the years.

Along with her years working with Cleveland parents, Saundra has over 20 years of volunteer work around all aspects of the Special Education process. Her many accomplishments include the 2017 Milestones Autism Conference Steering Committee, Parent Leadership Council SST3, Parent Advisory Committee of Cleveland Schools, Co-Founder of Parent Support Groups, Facilitator for the Cleveland/Akron Regional Forum addressing Ohio students with disabilities in the Juvenile Justice System in 2006, receiving the Outstanding Parent Service Award (SST3) in 2000, and serving on ESY Task Force helping to Review and Revise Guideline for Extended School Year in 1999. Saundra has also served as a member of Parent School Improvement Program and volunteered as a Surrogate Parent in the Orange City Schools.

How do you feel your efforts have impacted the autism and special needs community?

I believe every child/student should be given the opportunity to experience all levels of learning. There should not be a ceiling placed on the education of any child/student. While embracing that belief, I would encourage parents and families and community members to work toward expecting the best from our children and also seeing college as an option for their own children/students.

How has helping others shaped your life?

Helping others has proven to me the old adage, “One person can make a difference.” It has given me the courage, the purpose and the confidence that only serving can promote.

What is your message to inspire others to serve the autism and special needs community?

When you serve for the betterment of others, you discover your own powers and strength, talents and gifts. The journey you take while helping others becomes your journey toward the true meaning of life – LOVE.

Milestones 2017 Honoree Tyler Aldrich – Trailblazer

Tyler Aldrich, 22, is a trailblazer – both literally and figuratively.

He had a dream a few years ago while he was on vacation with his family. He wanted to run across the country to the West Coast, kind of like Tom Hanks’ character did in the film Forrest Gump. When the Fremont, Ohio native and Milestones 2017 honoree of the Trailblazer Award told his mentor and former high school cross country coach about this goal, his coach tried talking him out of it. You’re too young, he told Tyler, usually “ultra-runners” don’t do something like that until they are in their 30s. Maybe instead he should start out small, his coach suggested. Tyler’s response: “OK coach, then I’m going to run across the state of Ohio!”

That’s how Tyler’s version of “Run Ohio” was born. What started as a pipe dream became a dream come true. It took him two years to prepare for his June 11, 2016 run. Tyler started in Fremont and ran 225 miles across the state to Cincinnati, along the Ohio River. His “finish line” was at The Great American Ballpark (where the Cincinnati Reds play) during a game against the Chicago Cubs. Wanting to recognize Tyler’s achievement, the Reds organization reached out and invited him to run through the stadium, ending in the ball field and made him the Grand Marshall of their parade.

“I run to prove to myself – and others – that anything is possible,” says Tyler, who was diagnosed with autism at age four. “It’s my passion to bring awareness to autism as well as to set an example for others living on the spectrum and for those that may be living with challenges.”

When Tyler is not attending classes at Tiffin University, or working, he is running. Always running. He runs competitively in 5Ks and ran his first half-marathon in June 2015, placing 67th overall out of 1200 runners and placing 6th in his age group.

How do you feel your efforts have impacted the autism and special needs community?

I feel I have impacted the autism and special needs community by setting an example to those living with challenges, by persevering, by making positive changes, and by living my life with purpose and with the mindset that anything is possible.

How has helping others shaped your life?

Helping others is my calling. I aspire to help individuals living with autism, or people in general, to overcome their psychological barriers. I am living the life I created, sharing the lessons that only an ordinary person who pursued an extraordinary dream can share and serving as a beacon for others to do the same.

What is your message to inspire others to serve the autism and special needs community?

I used my passion for running, by running across the State of Ohio in June, 2016, for autism awareness, and to offer hope and inspiration to others who may live with challenges – that ANYTHING is possible. The MEANING of our lives is to find our gift… The PURPOSE of our lives is to give it away… OUR PURPOSE is GREATER than our challenges… I AM NOT what happened to me… I AM what I choose to become… and the best is yet to come.

Milestones 2017 Honoree Grace Blatt – Trailblazer

Grace Blatt, Milestones 2017 honoree of the Trailblazer Award, knows from personal experience that music can be both therapeutic and stimulating for persons on the autism spectrum. Her mission is to touch the lives of others who experience challenges due to anxiety or misunderstanding, and through music therapy help them find expression for their thoughts and feelings.

Grace is currently a student at Lakeland Community College with the goal of earning a degree in Music Therapy from Cleveland State University. For the past year Grace has been employed by the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities as a Good Life Ambassador. In this position she enjoys paving the way – advocating for persons with autism and other special needs.

How do you feel your efforts have impacted the autism and special needs community?

One of the most exciting ways I believe my efforts have impacted the autism and special needs community is through my work as a Good Life Ambassador for the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities. In this role I get to advocate for all of us in this special community by making presentations to county boards, local community collaboratives, schools, legislators, families, provider agencies, etc. I educate them about the tremendous value persons with all types of special needs bring to the greater community environments, and I provide ideas for them to embrace us with inclusion.

How has helping others shaped your life?

As a person on the autism spectrum I have experienced many challenges in trying to fit into “typical” society. By helping others, I have been able to use my experiences, both happy and difficult, to encourage and educate others. Helping others who are on this same journey is giving me a growing passion for advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves.

What is your message to inspire others to serve the autism and special needs community?

The statement that we are more alike than different is not just a trite saying. When you meet a person with autism or other special needs, be intentional about not noticing their differences. Instead, look closely for the person inside who is simply packaged more uniquely than most others. Once you see and value that person within, you will become excited to learn more about them and how you might be able to serve such special people!