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Autism support gains upper hand with FEAT / March 27, 2019
Families Embracing Autism Together (FEAT) is getting ready to celebrate its third year providing invaluable resources to Southside Virginia and Mecklenburg County families with members on the autism spectrum and those with special needs.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism affects an estimated one in 59 children in the U.S. today.

Mandi Calhoun and Shannon Facchina started FEAT in the spring 2016 when Calhoun’s son, Bailey, was attending First Christian School in South Hill, where Facchina was working at the time. Bailey was diagnosed with autism, and Calhoun and Facchina began discussing the lack of resources and information in the area when it comes to children on the autism spectrum.

Calhoun tells about when her son was first diagnosed. A social worker at Duke Hospital came to talk to them. She says the social worker looked at them and said, “You need to relocate your family. The area you are in does not offer services to meet your child’s needs.”

Calhoun said that this was what upset her most. Both her and her husband are business owners in the area and their families are located here. Moving was not an option.

FEAT has brought in much-needed resources to the community, along with several other services that were not available when Calhoun’s son was first diagnosed.

The idea for FEAT began when Calhoun’s family were at a showing of the movie, “The Family Next Door” in Richmond, put on by the Autism Society of Central Virginia. While there, they began speaking with the people inside the organization about starting a chapter in Mecklenburg County. They eventually decided that they wanted to go out on their own so that they could give 100 percent back to the community and cater to the specific needs of families in rural Southside Virginia.

The board is filled with people who have skills, education and work experience that are often needed by people diagnosed with autism. Their members have backgrounds or careers in speech therapy, pediatrics as a nurse practitioner, special education and advocacy for people on the autism spectrum.

Their mission statement provides insight into the goals of the organization: “Our goal is to help families of children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) through their journey by offering access to reputable resources and hands on training.”

FEAT provides training and in-service to local schools to help further educate teachers and employees about working with students that are on the spectrum. Too many teachers today lack understanding and knowledge of the differences or challenges that they may face when working with children. FEAT is there to provide them with the resources they need.

Calhoun says that they would like to be more involved with the schools. They have done some training in the past which she feels helps educators be more prepared.

Calhoun also mentioned educating other children in the schools that are not on the spectrum about what their classmates with autism are going through. She said that being able to explain autism and what it means to them, preferably at a young age, would help them to better understand and have them be in a better position to help and support their classmates.

Other classes and seminars that FEAT has hosted include managing sensory, managing difficult behaviors, training for first responders and how to of set up an autism friendly classroom and home.

Already FEAT has hosted several activities for local children on the spectrum. These events are an opportunity for families to get together, meet each other as well as the children, and to create an environment where they will feel included. Dance It Out and The Fit Club have both hosted events recently. And in the near future, a group has volunteered to take children canoeing and kayaking on the lake.

The organization is currently looking into sports and other leisure activities for special needs children, providing them with an opportunity to participate in activities currently foreclosed to them. They plan to host a sensory night at Parrish Pumpkin Patch in October, and a sensory-friendly Santa. Calhoun says that more people are learning about the organization and offering to participate in or host activities.

FEAT is currently working toward raising funds for community members, schools and businesses willing to provide accommodations for people diagnosed with autism. The plan is to have an open application period twice a year where individuals or organizations can apply for funding for their program or project. Calhoun said last year they gave $800 to Victoria Elementary School for a sensory room.

They are also working to help foster employment opportunities for older people on the autism spectrum. They’re turning to businesses already involved with children diagnosed with autism, hoping these same businesses will open their doors to older workers.

Calhoun says that FEAT still has “so many big goal and big visions that we see for the community.” They are working to get Commonwealth Autism of Richmond and their mobile diagnostic lab to the area. She says there is a need for diagnostic services in the area and that the goal is to offer their services at a minimal cost to the families.

FEAT has two fund raisers each year. Each year in May, they have a BBQ chicken fund raiser. Calhoun advised that they sold out over 500 plates last year. This year’s fund raiser will take place on May 18, and more information will be available soon. They also host a golf tournament in September. Last year’s golf tournament raised $17,000. The funds raised from these events are used to host the events for the community.

When asked what she would say to a parent or caregiver of a child recently diagnosed with autism, Calhoun said, “A label does not define or change your child.” She suggests seeking support through families that understand the diagnosis and connecting with organizations such as FEAT so that you know that you are not alone.

With one in 59 children being diagnosed with autism, Calhoun said there are plenty of families in Mecklenburg County that are going through the same thing. She also noted that now, parents have many more options, when it comes to helping their child and family members including applied behavior analysis therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy.

These services have opened in Mecklenburg in the last few years and have been a big help to families in the area, eliminating the need for them to drive to Petersburg or Richmond to get needed services for their children.

Calhoun says that at FEAT, members “want to do things that are impactful for the community.” There may be families in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties that may not know about the organization, or that there is something local that provides these resources to the community, but hopefully now they will realize that they can utilize what FEAT offers and know that there are resources availability right here at home.

The next event that FEAT has scheduled is Art for a Cause, April 5 from 6-9 p.m. at Rosemont Winery in La Crosse. Special needs children from 12 schools are submitting artwork that will be sold via silent auction. Proceeds from the event will be given back to the participating schools.

Adrian Wood, blogpost writer for “Tales of an Educated Debutante,” will be the guest speaker; her topic will be about inclusion. Ben and Danny Dalton will also be on hand to play music. There will be heavy hours d’oeuvres and wine will be available for purchase. Tickets are $10 and they may be purchased through the links provided on the FEAT Facebook page or their website

To contact FEAT you can visit their Facebook page “Families Embracing Autism Together” through their website, by email at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), or call 434-774-4069.

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