FALCONER - For a team of Temple Elementary School teachers, what started off as participation in a day of awareness has turned into a full-fledged organization with national connections.
The organization is known as "Ready, Set, Grow with Autism," and since last year, it has made waves for children diagnosed with the disorder.
Founded through the collaboration of Temple's special education teachers-Amy Smith, A'Lynn Conlan and Madeline Drago-Ready, Set, Grow was originally conceived when the teachers began calling area schools to coordinate for students to wear blue on April 2, which is Autism Awareness Day.
The founding board members of Ready, Set, Grow with Autism pose with a sign after reaching their goal of raising enough money to purchase six new iPads for the Dylan’s Gift iPad Scholarship. Pictured from left are A’Lynn Conlan, Amy Smith and Madeline Drago.
State Sen. Cathy Young poses with Amy Smith’s 7-year-old son, Jase, at the Light It Up Blue for Autism event on Autism Awareness Day last year.
"This T-shirt day turned into an event, and we ended up raising all of this money that we never intended to," said Smith, who's 7-year-old son, Jase, has Asperger syndrome. "We were figuring that we would raise $200 and send it to Austism Speaks, and we ended up with a couple thousand dollars. And I said, 'That's not going to Austism Speaks, it's going to Ready, Set, Grow; because we need something here for our families.'"
Utilizing these funds, the teachers created RSG as a nonprofit organization, with the mission of helping Chautauqua County families that have children on the autism spectrum.
This year, its focus is on utilizing technology to help autistic children to develop verbal and other communication skills. It was decided that RSG would create an iPad scholarship, in which iPads would be given away to students with autism for use in developing communication skills.
According to Smith, the Falconer Central School district has been employing an iPad app called "Proloquo2Go," which allows autistic children to answer questions through input of information.
"A lot of kids that have autism can't communicate, so communication was going to be our big thing," she said. "So we started talking about what were going to do and how to do it, and then (the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting) happened. And we were all so affected by Sandy Hook, we were (unable to function)."
After learning that one of the victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy was autistic, RSG contacted the parents of Dylan Hockley, a 6-year-old autistic student who was killed in the shooting. Wanting to do something in Dylan's memory, RSG asked Dylan's parents if it could name its iPad scholarship after him.
"They got back to us, and they were very honored. And with their blessing, we have named our iPad scholarship 'Dylan's Gift,'" said Smith. "So we started thinking about where we wanted to take this, and I said, 'Let's raise enough money to buy six iPads and give (the students) one for each year of Dylan's life.'"
With the creation of a website and advertising on Facebook, RSG began its fundraising efforts to purchase the iPads at $600 apiece-which it has since accomplished. As part of the marketing process for Dylan's Gift, RSG asked Dylan's parents-Ian and Nicole Hockley-what they wanted people to know about Dylan.
"Having a child with special needs in your family has its challenges and compromises," they said, in an emailed statement. "But it also adds so much happiness and strength. Dylan was pure, innocent and joyful, and in trying to see the world from his point of view, our family's mind was opened in ways it might not have been otherwise. He helped us to be stronger people than we might have been without him."
On April 20, RSG will host its first annual Family Fun event at the Falconer Middle/High School gymnasium from 1-4 p.m.
"The main purpose of the event is to bring our families together for some relaxing fun," said Smith. "We will talk about Dylan's Gift iPad Scholarship and announce the date when (the) scholarship will be open to applicants. We have also invited service providers to join us and meet with and help ASD families with questions they may have."
The event will also serve as a means of providing additional fundraising for the shipment of iPads through the Dylan's Gift scholarship, which has now raised enough money for the purchase of 10 iPads-six of which will be shipped this year. RSG is also looking into the possibility of using a seventh iPad to collect data with a speech therapist, who works with preschool-age children, to determine if the iPad and its programs are a viable communication tool for younger children.
The Family Fun event will include entertainment, provided by DJ Bear, and was made possible through the donations of several local sponsors. They include: Frewsburger Pizza Shop; Bounce-A-Lot Playland; Auntie Anne's Pretzels; TacMac Corporation; PBC; Sandy Thies; Bair's Pizza Pros.; Lena's Pizza; HH Rauh Paving Inc.; and Jamestown Savings Bank Arena.
For more information on Ready, Set, Grow with Autism, visit www.rsgwithautism.com. Anyone interested in becoming a sponsor for the Family Fun event can contact Amy Smith at 507-7387, or email RSG at firstname.lastname@example.org.