Charity Spotlight: Emerald Coast Autism Center


Meet Nicolas. He is a vibrant young boy who loves puzzles, singing songs, playing on the playground with friends, and crackers. Nicolas accounts for 1 in every 68 children that has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Almost 5 times more common among boys, ASD is the fastest growing serious developmental disability in the US. More children will be diagnosed with autism this year than with pediatric AIDS, diabetes, and cancer combined. Because each child on the autism spectrum learns differently and is motivated differently, Nicolas attends Emerald Coast Autism Center (ECAC) because they are able to meet his specific needs by implementing ABA Therapy in a one to one setting with highly trained behavior therapists. 

Nicolas began learning at ECAC in August of 2014. When he started he was generally nonverbal except for three spontaneous one-syllable sounds. He did not engage in any functional play with toys, would only sit with his peers for 1-3 minutes before getting up to leave, and would squeal or whine when an object was taken away from him. Although symptoms and their severity vary widely, communication difficulties are very common among children with autism, many completely nonverbal.  The therapists would work with him on labeling items and pictures daily. He was able to learn a picture of his mother with the words "Mama". A few days later, when his mother picked him up from therapy, he was able to make the connection that the lady in the picture called "Mama" was also the wonderful woman standing before him in the lobby. He ran to her with arms wide and called her ”Mama” for the very first time. Everyone in the lobby came to tears, realizing what a momentous milestone this was. His therapist, and mother hugged each other and hugged Nicolas and cried tears of joy. Today Nicholas is forming two syllable sounds. He is able to say several whole words such as mama, dada, shoe, and eye. He is manding for up, cracker, gummy, ball, go, puzzle, hat, open, and he is potty training. He can label both mama and dada, and can play with toys. Puzzles are now his favorite. He sits through lunch, and is able to sit with his peers for 10-15 minutes. He sings songs with his peers, especially if it’s “Row Your Boat”. 

Emerald Coast Autism Center started in the summer of 2009 with just 5 children. Staci Berryman and Heidi Blalock founded the non-profit organization determined to educate and improve the lives of young children with autism in Okaloosa and Walton Counties and surrounding areas. They now support 75 children with 50 therapists. They have watched children say their first words, learn to read, overcome severe problem behaviors and acquire the ability to function independently. As you can imagine, this changes the course of these children’s lives forever, as well as the lives of their families. Tiffany Edwards and Ashley Phillips, Campaign Co-Chairs, said “We can think of few things more heartwarming in life than to watch the parents of children with autism witness their children accomplishing routine functions such as speaking or feeding themselves for the first time. While most parents take these milestones for granted, these families do not.” 

In order to continue to help additional families and provide the highest caliber services for their students, ECAC has entered into an agreement with Northwest Florida State College to build a facility on their campus.  This will be a 14,500 square foot standalone center that will allow students to access the college campus facilities. In return, NWFSC will be able to offer their current education students hand-on exposure to children with autism and expand their existing curriculum.  Their $2.5 million capital campaign will help fundraise to achieve this goal. 

We are proud to call Emerald Coast Autism Center our Charity Partners. They are an altruistic, magnanimous, determined team and our community is fortunate to have ECAC to assist so many families. Last year we raised $2,035,000 at the 9th Annual Auction. $300,000 was donated to Emerald Coast Autism Center, making DCWAF the foundational benefactor of the ECAC Capital Campaign. This year, we hope to raise the bar once again and surpass our goal of $2 million for our charities. The more funds raised, the more scholarships we are able to provide to allow students like Nicolas to enroll full time at the Emerald Coast Autism Center, students who would benefit tremendously from the services they have to offer. The more funds raised, the closer they will get to their new facility where they would be able to help the maximum number of children with autism long-term. While we celebrate 10 years at our 2015 Auction, we hope to raise $10 million in $10 years, awarding our 14 charities the funds they need to further their missions, capital campaigns, and to ultimately reach more children and their families. 

Published on Thursday, February 19, 2015