Saturday afternoons buzz with activity at Christ Community Church in Fort Myers. Teenagers kick around a soccer ball in the gym. Toddlers play with blocks and toys in another room. In the game room, kids take turns playing the Wii. The afternoon is supposed to just be fun—but it ends up being much more for the children and their parents. The Saturday playgroups are a respite for kids and young adults with autism and their parents.
The playgroups, supervised by a team of clinicians trained to work with children with autism, are the hallmark of nonprofit organization Family Initiative Inc. The organization is relatively new, started just three years ago by social workers David Brown and Anjali Van Drie. But it’s grown quickly. About 35 children attend the playgroups each Saturday. That success has allowed Family Initiative to branch out to provide other services during the week for both parents and their children. And, the organization is about to embark on a major project: a 3,000-square-foot resource center in Cape Coral. “We’re trying to do the best we can to create a positive culture,” says Brown, who serves as president of the organization.
The percentage of children with an autism spectrum disorder continues to grow in the country; nearly 1 in 59 children are diagnosed as such, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So, the question becomes: How can a community provide services that these children and their caregivers need? Brown and Van Drie heard this question many times during their time finding homes for foster children in Lee County. But they found that answers were hard to come by. There was a lack of programming for children with autism. There were places that provided therapy or similar services, but not many that just gave these children an outlet—a place to play; a place to make friends. So, the pair decided to create something themselves.
They called the organization “Family Initiative” because they wanted the focus to be on the entire family—parents, children, siblings. They started by listening. They put together focus groups of parents who have children with autism and asked that question they kept hearing: What’s needed? So much of the feedback was on the social aspect. Oftentimes, children with autism get set aside in social situations. They sometimes feel like they cannot make connections with people their age, and they lack places to go to socialize with other children with autism.
Maryann Devivo has seen this firsthand with her daughter, Adrianna, who is now 20. Adrianna had spent her childhood in New York. But when the family was looking to move to Florida following father Michael’s retirement from the police force, they needed to find a community with opportunities for Adrianna. She talked with Brown and Van Drie on and off for about a year. She found comfort in how they listened. They seemed in tune with the needs of each child, and even though she wasn’t even living in the area yet, they had the patience to discuss her situation. Family Initiative ended up being one of the major factors in the family’s decision to move to Cape Coral two years ago. Since, Adrianna has become a regular at the organization’s playgroups, and her parents have seen her social skills improve. “Sometimes Mom goes by the gut. With this, we ended up with a perfect fit,” Maryann says.
Based off the success of the playgroups, the organization expanded its services to host monthly parent groups, Thursday night art and theater classes at Alliance for the Arts, and a Tuesday afternoon teens-only group. And, they’ve teamed with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office to develop ASD Band Together. With that, children can wear individualized wristbands containing an ID number. In case police find a child who is missing, the ID number will lead police to contact information for a caregiver.
The next step for the organization will come in the form of a new home. The $310,000 center will come with an activity space (although the Saturday playgroups will still be held at the church), therapy rooms, sensory rooms and office space. The idea is also to host other autism-related nonprofits and serve as a veritable one-stop-shop for people with autism and their caregivers. The goal is to have the center open early next year.
It’s hard enough for children with autism to find a space of their own. Family Initiative is hoping they can make it a little easier. Says Brown, “We hope to give them a place where they feel like they belong.”