Western receives six-figure gift to launch autism program

Mai Hoang

A $150,000 donation, announced yesterday,will launch a new program at Western to help young adults with autism make the transition from school to the real world.

The three-year gift from Bowling Green residents John and Linda Kelly will kick-start the Kelly Autism Program. The Kelly’s 16-year-old daughter, Victoria, was diagnosed with the developmental disability that occurs during the first three years of life.

The Kelly family has had a long relationship with Western that began when Victoria was 18 months old. At that time, the young girl began working with special instruction professor Frank Kersting at Western’s speech, literacy and learning disorders clinic.

John Kelly said the new program will give people like his daughter a chance to live meaningful lives.

“At 21, they can’t go to school anymore,” Kelly said. “Let’s find things to do that they are good at and that they enjoy and feel confident about.”

The Kelly Autism Program is a cooperative project between the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences and the College of Health and Human Services.

Stan Cooke, head of the special instruction programs department, said most programs for autism are aimed at younger children.

“The real plus of this program is that there is no model like this one we’re trying to attempt,” he said. “It’s looking at older individuals rather than children.”

Cooke said the program is expected to begin next year and will allow autistic individuals the chance to come to Western for educational, support and recreation activities aimed at helping them make the transition from the classroom to the workplace.

Cooke said the program will involve the cooperation of several Western departments, Bowling Green school districts and social service groups like LifeSkills who specialize in dealing with mental health issues.

Eventually the program will expand to include other age groups, Cooke said. Western recruited special instruction programs professor Michael Mayton to be the program director, he said.

“We recruited him for this project because of his background in autism,” Cooke said. “He has a lot of experience working with autistic individuals.”

Mayton said the Kelly project will be unique from other autism programs because it will involve more than basic instruction. He said it will also provide programs to encourage autistic individuals to develop friendships, participate in the community and find interests that will help improve their quality of life.

“It provides them with opportunities for choices that they may not ordinarily have,” he said. “It provides them options and freedoms they may not ordinarily have access to. It attempts to address what makes us human beings.”

John Kelly said there is a growing number of children diagnosed with autism and there needs to be a program to help those individuals when they are older.

“(Western) has the capability of allocating resources and putting the manpower to make this project a reality,” Kelly said.

Cooke said the new program will also benefit students involved with special education, recreational therapy and communication disorders at Western. Some of those students will serve as mentors.

“It will give students a great clinical background with these kinds of individuals,” he said.

Tom Hiles, vice president for Institutional Advancement, said the Kellys’ donation has helped Western raise $83 million for its capital campaign, just $7 million short of its $90 million goal.

Western hopes to raise the remaining money by June.

Reach Mai Hoang at [email protected]