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Stephanie Doney, 10 (clockwise from left), Teagan Bradley, 10, and Clara Doney, 7, take a break from a popular parachute activity offered by Lutheran Family Services of Virginia’s Essential Pieces social groups. The groups provide activities for children on the autism spectrum and their “neurotypical” siblings, while their parents attend education sessions.

very first sessions, both the congregation and LFS knew they were filling a need.

Essential Pieces is “a network, a massive safety net … an educational group, not a support group,” Thomas said. “People are attracted to that positive energy. In a support group, you can be emotionally stuck.” With the program, parents don’t have to go to different places to get information, Thomas said. “In [our city], I wouldn’t have known that people knew about feeding or sensory issues,” she said. “LFS helped put [all the infor- mation] in one place.”

Expanding the program In January 2012, LFS replicated the program at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Hampton, Va., and Trinity, a Lutheran Church–Mis- souri Synod congregation in Richmond, Va. The Hampton program is so popular it has a waiting list.

Christine L. Farrow, pastor of St. Paul and the mother of two teenagers with autism, had been begging LFS executive director Julie Swanson for help for some time. Today there are more than enough resources, Farrow said.

Farrow asks congregations to consider what they are doing to help families whose children have special needs. Programs like Essential Pieces, she said, are “an opportunity to serve our neighbors and love people for who they are.”

Compliments are already pouring in from parents. “There are limited resources and help for special needs children,” said Laura Lenz, mother of Chad and the founder of the Peninsula School for Autism, Newport News, Va. Lenz calls

Essential Pieces “phenomenal,” “very structured” and “a godsend to this area for families with special needs.” Nicole Pangle, mother of Matty, 5, diagnosed three years ago, calls autism “a difficult road to navigate. … You need a road map.” She got that road map of therapies and treatments through Essential Pieces. She now serves as a volunteer parent coordinator for the program. Although Maureen Adingono, a speech therapist and mother of three, once worked in a psychiatric hospital, she had difficulty finding information after her daughter, Lydie, 5, was diagnosed with autism in 2011. The pro- gram gave her community resources, parenting strategies and even information about how the brain works.

‘No end to the need’

Out of one family’s need T

he first few months of Reeve Thomas’ life were filled with smiles, coos and giggles. But as his parents Emily and Bob Thomas watched, their firstborn became increasingly lethargic. He struggled to reach developmental milestones. Test after test could not tell them why. A few months after his first birthday, he stopped using words.

On Jan. 18, 2005, Bob came home from work and it appeared that his almost 2-year-old son no longer recognized him. Two weeks later, Reeve was diagnosed with autism.

Everything changed. Chronic stress and anxiety threatened to overwhelm the family. But Emily, who had worked with children on the autism spectrum, turned her family’s need for information and a community of care into help- ing create Essential Pieces, an educational pro- gram of Lutheran Family Services of Virginia. “A lot of the things that God calls us to do are the difficult things,” Emily said.

Thomas still keeps an eye on the program although she and Reeve have taken a break from participation. After years of early intervention, Reeve, 9, is doing well and actively participating in such activities as Grace’s Sunday school, choir and Cub Scouts. She and her husband, Bob, a structural engineer, have a younger son, Will, who is also a Cub Scout and church acolyte. “Reeve is now function- ing pretty well, but we have our moments,” she said. For example, when a storm came up on a family camping trip, he “couldn’t cope,” she said, adding that others around them were shocked by what appeared to be misbehavior. “To not be able to communi- cate with your child effectively is emotionally draining,” she said. “He is getting straight As, playing tennis. He has a foot in both worlds. [Yet] if he is hav- ing a problem, I have no idea. He just doesn’t tell me.” There is no end to the need,

Swanson said. “[But] as a faith-based nonprofit, we do programs that wouldn’t be there [otherwise],” she added. As for the families, parent

Carole Todd

Todd is communications coordinator for Lutheran Family Services of Virginia.

Kathy Wood of Winchester said, “we gain knowledge, power and love.” 

May 2012 17

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