A Cutting-Edge Center for Autism


St. Joseph’s Villa has been at the forefront of serving students with autism in Central Virginia for more than 40 years. Reaching 26 localities, our Sarah Dooley Center for Autism (SDCA) is one of the Villa’s largest and fastest growing programs.

Despite tremendous efforts, our public schools are overwhelmed by the growing number of children appearing on the autism spectrum. The Virginia Department of Education reports that the number of students with autism has increased by an average of 12.1% each year over the past decade, totaling nearly 22,000 today. In order to meet this deepening need, we have a bold idea.

Building front

By redeveloping our 24,000 sq. ft. Dooley School building as the Villa’s new Sarah Dooley Center for Autism, we will create an environment that marries education, therapy, research, and community partnership. The new Center will be the hub for our pioneering model of autism education, designed to achieve the behavioral and communications outcomes of an elite clinic, while reaching the academic goals of a top school, and maximizing independence for 100 students and their families at a time.

SDCA will also serve as a model for autism-specific classrooms, designed to be replicable in public school systems with existing resources. The new space will allow us to host robust in-service and embedded teacher trainings to meet the growing need for training in autism-specific teaching and communication techniques, applied behavior skills, and outcome measures. By training teachers, SDCA will impact the lives of thousands of children across the Commonwealth and beyond.


St. Joseph’s Villa is committed to providing first-class education and care to all children with developmental disabilities. Our programs, delivered at no cost to families, include

  • Year-round education in our Center for Autism
  • After-school recreation and skill building
  • 24-hour in-home behavioral support and emergency response
  • Community-based instruction to support independence and life skills
  • Partner experiences including music and animal therapy
  • Career and transition services for life after school
  • Adult day programming for students who have aged out of school services
  • Access to our on-campus food bank and donation center

We empower parents to be partners and advocates in their children’s education.

We work with families to create a bridge between school, home, and community. SDCA is part of a unique continuum of care at St. Joseph’s Villa, with wraparound support services to help students reach their goals and prepare for life after school.

“My son wants to come to school. He will greet you now, look at your eye-to-eye and try to engage. Without places like St. Joseph’s Villa, I think a lot of us parents would be lost. They not only help your child, they help you.” – Paula Knight, Parent

SDCA student Romelo watering plants in the Villa's Learning & Therapy Garden


We are proud to partner with public schools. Our goal is to give our students the skills they need to successfully transition back to their zoned public schools, where they can be in their community with neighbors and siblings.

How will a Center for 100 students change the lives of 10,000?

More than 98% of all children with an autism diagnosis will be exclusively educated by public schools. A specialized placement can take years of advocacy and legal battles for families, but without one, parents face cost prohibitive private school tuition. These hurdles are especially hard on the low-income families we serve.

Our new SDCA will be a model and training hub for teachers, aides, bus drivers, parents, pediatricians, and others who are part of the lives of these students. The renovated building will house a Campus Center that will provide a flexible space where we will train up to 1,000 professionals each year. Over time, the ripple effect will touch the lives of tens of thousands of students. Our pioneering model is designed to be replicable in a public school setting with existing resources and infrastructure, and to help prepare our schools and communities to educate and welcome the rapidly increasing number of students with an autism diagnosis.


Quality of life and independence matter most. The top expense for adults with moderate to severe developmental disabilities is personal care. According to the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, autism care costs totaled $268 billion in the United States in 2015. If the prevalence of autism continues to increase as it has in the last decade, the cost will exceed $1 trillion in 2025.

Education is the only known way to mitigate and reverse the presenting symptoms of autism. Improving communication and behaviors can lead to a higher degree of self-care and freedom, in addition to millions of dollars in cost savings over our students’ lifetimes. Children can remain in their homes for longer or qualify for less restrictive group home placement, increasing their independence and quality of life, while decreasing crippling cost of one-on-one adult care.

SDCA will be a state-of-the-art venue for attracting new community partners and experts in autism to the Greater Richmond region. By collecting more than 2 million data points a year on our students’ success and educational outcomes, we are positioned to pilot promising educational interventions with our university and research partners.


  • Expanded capacity for 100 students
  • Sensory library with resources to help students master technology and explore career options
  • Health suite for students who require medical attention
  • The Villa’s first-ever Campus Center that will accommodate up to 250 people for region-wide trainings and Villa events
  • Digital data collection and portal use for families, school divisions, and research partners to see what students are learning in real time
  • Observation areas for parents, trainees, and research partners
  • Safety corridors to ease transition
  • Dedicated spaces for music and art
  • Life-skills suite where students can learn independent living skills

New SDCA floor plan

Campus-wide Upgrades

The Villa campus opened in 1931 as a refuge and tool for vulnerable children. Capital improvements that promote accessibility, energy efficiency, and technology will ensure that it continues to evolve as a powerful resource for our programs. With 17 buildings and more than 250,000 square feet of space across 82 acres, upgrading our campus will increase our service capacity and allow us to meet the future needs of our campus.


Build a Youth Fitness Park

Outdoor activities and physical exercise serve a vital role in students’ cognitive, emotional, and social development. Our dynamic Learning and Therapy Garden, accessible playgrounds, and expansive green space give them access to safe, therapeutic experiences. On the north end of our campus, plans for a fitness playground dedicated to older youth include an outdoor basketball court, a walking track, gymnastics and motor skills equipment, and a shade pavilion for yoga and dance. This space would benefit more than 200 students each week and add new therapeutic options for our staff.

Perform critical repairs to preserve our historic buildings

Roof repairs, energy efficient windows, waterproofing, and other necessary restorations to our buildings will provide children and families the highest quality environment to learn, heal, and grow.

Upgrade operations technology to increase capacity for service

Every second counts when families come to the Villa in crisis. Increased efficiency and functionality of technology resources will enable us to more readily and accurately provide the best customized services to our clients and prepare to serve more people in the years to come.

Install sustainable air conditioning systems

The Villa’s largest and most challenging capital need is the replacement of aging air conditioning systems, currently in or near failure. Our student populations are especially sensitive to temperature changes, and fluctuations dramatically increase the number of serious behavioral incidents recorded by staff. Providing them with a more comfortable space will facilitate effective service delivery. We estimate an annual savings of $115,000 in energy and repair costs with the installation of new environmentally friendly systems.

Securing a Future of Service through Endowment

St. Joseph’s Villa is the longest serving nonprofit for children in the United States. We have been open to the most vulnerable and underserved children and families 24 hours a day, seven days a week, since 1834. Throughout our entire history, community support has sustained our mission.

The Villa’s $24 million Endowment is the product of generous individual philanthropy and prudent stewardship of resources. It provides financial stability for the Villa to withstand unpredictable changes in public funding and in educational and social service policies, especially in difficult economic times–when those we serve need it most.

As the reach of our programs grows, we seek to increase our Endowment by more than 10%. This increase will enable us to meet the rising demands for health and human services, and look beyond the immediate costs of programs to anticipate the needs of the future. The Endowment is expertly managed by our Foundation board.

Our named Funds for Excellence honor supporters who commit $100,000 or more to the Endowment. Those who fund their endowment through a planned gift are recognized as members of the Villa’s Archway Society.

Comprehensive Campaign Priorities

New SDCA Building – $8,000,000
Capital Priorities – $2,000,000
Endowment Funds – $2,500,000

Subtotal – $12,500,000

Support for Current Programs – $12,500,000

($2.5 million annually for 5 years)

Total – $25,000,000

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