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When Katie Essex’s son, Keith Vanover, was first diagnosed with autism, she wasn’t sure what to do. She wasn’t familiar with the disorder, so she wasn’t sure where to start when dealing with it.
And the more she looked, the more she disliked the results. She found out quickly that there was very little support in Washington County for the mother of an autistic child.
Essex decided to take matters into her own hands.
“There wasn’t anything to help,” Essex said. “I just thought that, since my child’s autistic, surely there are other people like that, so I just ran a Briefs item in The Springfield Sun. It said we’re forming an autism support group. If you’re interested, call me. I started getting calls, and then we began having meetings.”
The numbers for the group — known as the Washington Autism Group of Support (WAGS) — slowly began to increase. They went from a handful from their first meeting in 2008 to a list that now has approximately 20 names.
By their second year, they were already putting together events to help raise autism awareness in the area. Their first event was a walk. Around 40 people showed up.
The experience was so positive that they decided to add a fair to their walk, a tradition that started in 2010 and hasn’t let up since. This past year, they had over 300 people in attendance.
“It’s amazing how much this community does care,” WAGS member Melody McClain, father of Jesse McClain, age 7, said.
WAGS member Robyn Reinle, along with Essex and McClain, have also been “very impressed” with the support that the school system has provided their children.
And its reputation is spreading.
“I know five families that are trying to move to Springfield to get their kids into this school system,” Reinle, mother of Emma, age 8, said. “It’s a blessing to have one that cares as much as they do.”
Because the community has been so welcoming to the group, WAGS has been donating back to the area ever since they’ve had the resources to do so.
Their first donation was $2,000 funded for “wish list” presented by teachers to obtain tools and teaching materials for which funding was not otherwise available.
“Our giving directly helps kids in this community, and that’s what counts,” McClain said.
“The more money we raise, the more money we can give back,” Essex added.
Some of the most important things that the group can bring are awareness, education and, perhaps most of all, hope.
“For other mothers that are just starting down this road,” McClain said, “we can help share our experiences of things we’ve been through before and hopefully that will help someone else be better equipped to deal with that situation.”
WAGS has recently been looking for various ways to expand its operations, becoming incorporated just last year and filing for 501C3 tax exempt non-profit status. If that is approved, the next step for the group would be finding a building to rent in Springfield.
This would allow them the flexibility to offer kids the opportunity to receive further social time, therapy sessions and potential disability camps.
A facility could also provide a place for the group members, parents, teachers and therapists to have meetings regarding autism.
And their most recent idea is building a website for the group, which they hope would allow them to reach a wider group of parents in need.
But for now, the focus of the group is on the Washington County Fifth Annual Autism Event.
According to McClain, the event gives the group the opportunity to educate the community about autism.
“It’s also simply a nice day for families to come out and have something fun to do in the community,” Essex said.
The fair portion of the event will host many informational booths, vendors, kid games, inflatables, prizes and a silent auction. The proceeds from the auction is the bulk of the money the group will raise that helps them give back to the area.
The event is from 11a.m.-3 p.m. at the River of Life Community Church. Admission is no charge, and all kid games are free. The event is open to everyone.
However, if you plan on bidding in the silent auction, the group encourages you to bring cash or check.
WAGS meets every third Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Cornerstone Christian Church in Springfield.