We believe every individual we serve has hope for a bright future, no matter what obstacles they face. These are a few of the thousands of stories we help rewrite each year.
Many parents of children with autism dream their kids will one day be able to engage and thrive in their community. Svitlana traveled halfway across the world from Ukraine to the United States to realize that dream for her son, Ilya – fueled by hope that it would mean his chance for an education, and ultimately a more fulfilling life.
“In Ukraine, kids with special needs don’t have the opportunity to go to school,” said Svitlana. “Their only choice is to stay at home.”
Svitlana’s journey brought her to the Sarah Dooley Center for Autism (SDCA) at St. Joseph’s Villa, where she could finally envision her dreams for Ilya becoming a reality. At age 11, Ilya got to experience his first-ever day of school. He arrived with almost no functional communication, language, or social skills, combined with intense behaviors that isolated him from his peers. From day one, SDCA staff focused on helping Ilya grow his communication and language by facilitating through academic, social and recreational activity in the classroom and through community-based instruction.
SDCA prioritizes community-based instruction to give students real-world experiences that prepare them for a successful transition to adulthood. Our curriculum includes weekly trips off campus to diverse venues such as local stores, museums, restaurants, movie theaters, and parks. For SDCA Senior Director Adam Dreyfus and his team, the driving philosophy is independence.
“Autism is unique in that it is very sensitive to expert intervention,” said Dreyfus. “We focus on giving students more language and social skills. As those improve, you see behaviors improve, and it opens the world to them.”
After six years at SDCA, Ilya’s transformation has been nothing short of astounding. Today can self-regulate his behavior, has learned to read, and he can stay at home by himself, says Svitlana. What brings her the most joy, though, is that Ilya has been able to make friends. He is now walking the halls of his home school in Henrico County – a unique achievement. As much as Svitlana is elated by Ilya’s growth, it wasn’t easy to say goodbye to SDCA. To her, as well as Villa staff, Ilya will always be part of the Villa family.
“I’m so happy, and so proud of him” she said. “Finally, we have a real clear way to grow a regular life.”
See more of Ilya’s story, featured on PBS’s Virginia Currents.
Hannah’s friends know her for her big heart and genuine desire to help others – but before coming to St. Joseph’s Villa, she was overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety and depression. She was bullied by her peers and struggled to keep up in class, taking a toll on her self-esteem.
Even at home, forming positive relationships was a challenge for Hannah. Eventually her frustrations led her to become violent toward her family. She came to the Villa’s Therapeutic Day Treatment after-school program to build her confidence, social skills and self-control.
Program clinicians teamed with Hannah’s family to create a behavioral plan tailored to her needs, including a specific set of goals to work on at home. Hannah’s family and Villa staff stayed in close communication to ensure she was making progress.
Hannah achieved all of her behavioral goals and graduated from the program. Her relationship with her family improved and she is now trying out for school sports teams. With the help of Villa specialists and the support of her family, Hannah is comfortable being herself again.
Keimon had a hard time going against peer pressure, which led to trouble at school and at home. At the Villa, Keimon found a place where he could pursue his interests by participating in Career and Transition Services (CATS). While exploring vocational opportunities, he joined a snack preparation and delivery program serving Villa students with autism, and interned with Villa athletic operations. Keimon also toured local colleges and worked with college student mentors on a variety of skill-building projects.
Now Keimon feels confident stepping out from the crowd to become his own person. He even performed in a live play through the University of Richmond’s Jepson Shakespeare Project – something he never pictured himself doing. His time at the Villa encouraged him to dream big for his future.
“I want to be a counselor one day, because I like how the counselors here treat me,” he said.
The positive relationships Keimon formed with Villa staff and college mentors also inspired him to mentor an elementary student in the Villa’s Dooley School. He enjoys imparting the lessons he has learned, and feels that serving as a mentor is a great way to prepare for a career in counseling.
“CATS changed me a lot,” said Keimon. “I’m a whole different person.”
Tyriek served in Afghanistan for three years as a unit supply specialist for the U.S. Army. He was released from his position when the Army experienced budget cuts. When he returned to his fiancée Bianka and son Tyriek, Jr. in Richmond, their joy in reuniting was cut short by the housing crisis they faced.
“I didn’t have good home life growing up,” said Tyriek. “I was beaten down emotionally by my family, I hung around a bad crowd, and I made some bad financial decisions. We didn’t have anything to fall back on.”
The family tried staying with Bianka’s relatives at first. They had one twin bed to share in a high crime area, and quickly realized different solution was needed.
Options for staying together were limited. Not wanting to be split up by a shelter, Tyriek and Bianka sought assistance from Flagler Housing & Homeless Services. Within a few weeks, Flagler helped them find an affordable apartment in a safe neighborhood, and obtain a lease in their own name. In-kind gifts of housewares and other essentials from the Villa’s generous donors made it feel like home in no time.
“Our neighbors are very nice. We’re proud to have them over,” said Tyriek.
Tyriek and Bianka are now married and financially stable. From the comfort of his home, Tyriek finished his degree in audio engineering. He believes his life has turned a new corner, and wants to help others live good lives through the power of music. One day, he hopes to become a minister.
Not having a way to communicate frustrated Xander. Frustration turned into outbursts that usually ended with injury to himself or others. His parents Eric and Frances were constantly covered in cuts and bruises trying to care for him.
“We used to measure how good a day was based on our number of injuries, or whether or not we sprained anything,” said Eric.
School presented its own challenges. Eric and Frances credit Xander’s public school for using every tool at their disposal to create an environment where he could thrive, but the incidents continued to escalate. Xander was sent home early each day and lost the benefit of a full school day where he could develop with his peers. When private placement was recommended, Eric and Frances chose to enroll him in the Villa’s Sarah Dooley Center for Autism. They have been amazed by the changes in Xander since then.
“Xander’s quality of life has improved in every way. He is extremely fond of the teachers. They let Xander teach them how he wants to learn and interact with the world, and they turned that into a game plan to help him build skills,” said Frances.
“Xander is still nonverbal, but now he is able to express himself,” said Eric. “He has started forming relationships with classmates. He shares toys, he laughs… for the first time we see him building bridges with others.”
Xander is continuing to grow in our Center for Autism as he learns to be more independent and develops new ways to communicate. Eric and Frances believe his future is brighter than ever.
As you prepare to celebrate the holidays with those special to you, please join us in spreading hope to our community’s most vulnerable children and families through our 2022 Season
DID YOU KNOW... During the COVID-19 pandemic, 37% of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health. LGBTQ+ youth are 4x more likely to attempt suicide than their peers. In the U.S., there