Parents with children in the autism community were shocked earlier this year when they learned that Lee County Autism Resource and Advocacy was closing its doors for good.
Justin Brown, whose 9-year-old son Ethan has autism, was one of many parents who learned the news through a Facebook post on the group’s page on Jan. 7. The posting announced the group would be dissolving after five years.
“It probably wasn’t an easy decision for them because they’ve been in the community for a long time, and they’ve served a lot of parents,” Brown said.
He said he would miss the monthly speakers LCARA would have who discussed different topics, from how to relay a child’s needs to their school to how to get insurance coverage for different kinds of therapy.
The need for this kind of information was part of the reason LCARA started.
Maria Gutierrez, LCARA’s president, moved to Lee County, Alabama, and found it difficult to find the information she needed to help her son with autism.
As she searched for the information, she found other parents looking for the same things. Gutierrez and other parents of children with autism decided to form LCARA as a nonprofit in August 2013 aimed at providing parents with information about the resources available to them and their children with autism.
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“Our mission was to bridge the gap,” Gutierrez said. “We felt that, at that time, parents didn’t know how to navigate the system.”
Throughout the organization’s five year run, it hosted events where parents could learn about those resources and could connect with other parents dealing with the same things they were.
LCARA began hosting a summer camp for parents and their children with autism. The parents attended autism resource education sessions while the children participated in typical camp activities.
“The camp was something that came out because we [needed] to provide the families with an opportunity to enjoy [themselves,]” Gutierrez said.
Providing information about resources and giving families the opportunity to connect with each other through events like the summer camp was LCARA’s top priority, but many board members and other parents went beyond that, said Carly Baum, LCARA’s secretary and treasurer.
“We pushed for more programs and made connections with other agencies,” Baum said. “We really tried to put our voices out there and say, ‘We exist for Lee County, but what exists for other places?’”
That is part of the reason LCARA decided to close its doors. Leaders of the group said they wanted to spread the knowledge they have gained during their time with LCARA throughout the state.
The decision was not an easy one, but the board members of LCARA agreed that while there is still work to be done, there are many resources available to families in Lee County and their time would be better spent focusing on spreading those resources throughout the state.
Their goal now is to work as individuals or as groups of parents to strengthen the resources throughout the state, something they said they couldn’t do as LCARA.
“It’s not like I’m just going to be going home,” Gutierrez said. “My agenda is full of dates for meetings. It’s still being an advocate, being the voice, helping to continue being a voice throughout the state in whatever capacity we’re needed to continue creating awareness.”
Just because LCARA is gone now doesn’t mean the resources available to children with autism in Lee County go away, Gutierrez and Baun stressed.
The Regional Autism Network, which LCARA had a hand in bringing to Auburn University and has partnered with for many events, is now in its third year and is continuing to grow, said Doris Hill, a director for RAN.
RAN encompasses the entire state and ensures resources for families are more widespread. Hill serves the fourth of five districts, each of which are based at a university in Alabama.
“While the RAN serves 20 counties, I will miss LCARA’s family-oriented services here in Lee County and input (while) the RANs came into being, as well as their passion for advocacy,” Hill said. “The members of LCARA have been heroes to families impacted by autism and developmental disabilities here in Lee County.”
Parents can also look to the Auburn and Opelika Parks and Recreation departments, both of which provide programs for people with special needs, such as Special Olympics and Miracle League, said Dana Stewart, director of The Exceptional Foundation. The foundation manages a program for adults with special needs that enables them to continue learning and serving in the community.
“By being involved in these different organizations, they get to bond with other parents and make friendships where they can help each other,” Stewart said. “It’s vital for these families to look out for each other and support each other.”
The foundation and other organizations often have newsletters or other ways to provide a constant stream of updates with helpful information, Stewart said. Still, she said it was a blow to see a local advocacy and resource center shut its doors.
“I’m just sad that they did have to close down,” Stewart said. “It was a great group of people that ran it that just had such a heart and passion for this population.”
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