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Every piece


September.


is essential E


ssential Pieces, a Lutheran Family Services of Virginia program, opened a “huge window” for Shelley Drago and her son, Camdyn, 4, diagnosed with autism last


Named for the pieces of a puzzle, it “[puts] the pieces together for the sake of our children,” said James H. Utt, a pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Winchester, Va., where the program began in 2008. Today, Essential Pieces offers eight-week evening sessions that connect parents of autistic children with community resources and professionals (www.lfsva.org/ programs_services/essential_pieces). It helps parents become proactive in accessing occupational and physical therapy, vocational rehabilitation, advocacy in schools, sign language, diet, music and even horsemanship. While their parents are learning, children with autism and their siblings play games and sing songs in a social group. Camdyn loves to go and meet new friends, Drago said. Calling Essential Pieces “wonderful,” she added, “And it’s free for parents. It’s the best organization I’ve been a part of. If the children are happy, that’s everything.” Autism spectrum disorders, caused by brain abnormal-


Seeing the need


It all began in 2008 when Utt’s daughter, speech therapist Emily Thomas, sought ways to cope with the needs of her son, Reeve, then 5. Lutheran Family Services of Virginia had an office at Grace, so she turned to the agency for help with creating Essential Pieces.


Funding to start the program came from a small grant from a local United Way and a $60,000 three-year grant from the ELCA Foundation’s Lutheran Services for Children Endowment, said Cassie Phipps, LFS director of community-based services. Additionally, Shenandoah University, Winchester, provides interns who help staff the program and gain the experience they need to enter careers related to autism support.


When 70 parents and 27 children showed up for the Kegley is The Lutheran’s correspondent for the Virginia Synod. 16 The Lutheran • www.thelutheran.org


Virginia Lutherans help families puzzle out autism resources By George Kegley


ities, have become more prevalent in the last decade. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 1 in 88 children has been identified with an autism. Utt said Essential Pieces gives parents a break and is a way the congregation can be a welcoming, safe place for families who have children with special needs.


MANUELA CALLIS/LUTHERAN FAMILY SERVICES OF VIRGINIA


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