In 1996, Lisa and Susan were moms of young sons who were newly diagnosed with autism. At the time, the rate of autism was 1 in 2,500. To get ABA therapy for their sons, they had to fly in consultants from New York and California, recruit their own therapists, provide their own training, coordinate their own programs, and find their own funding.
In an effort to fill the gap in services, they incorporated Project HOPE Foundation as a nonprofit organization. For them, “HOPE” was the perfect acronym for their goal for their sons: “Help Our Potential Emerge.”
As their first program, they launched a small inclusion-based preschool with six teachers, eighteen students, and an annual budget of less than $30,000, housed at Advent United Methodist Church. Over the years, the school program, Hope Academy, expanded into elementary grades, thanks to the generous sharing of space by Advent UMC, serving over 1,400 students since its inception. Hope Academy is a unique model specifically designed for the successful inclusion of children with autism in classes with neurotypical peers.
When word of the classroom model began to spread, parents of children on the autism spectrum started flocking to see the program. These families desperately needed assistance in forming a game plan for helping their children. Calls came in from all over the country. This facet of information delivery became known as Hope Link. To help spread information beyond the Upstate, they produced a DVD known as “Understanding Autism: A Resource for Families, Pediatricians, and Caregivers.” Through Hope Link, Lisa and Susan have met with over 1,000 families.
In 2007, Project HOPE Foundation worked with the movement to bring funding for ABA therapy to South Carolina through Ryan’s Law and the PDD Waiver. As soon as ABA funding became available, Project HOPE Foundation recruited Mark Knight, who as a college student had served as a therapist for Lisa’s son, to establish a new ABA therapy program. Hope Reach began services with five clients and a handful of therapists, leading the way in implementing insurance and waiver funding. In 2008, Hope Reach added a clinical option in Woodruff, SC, making use of the BJ Workman facility through the support of Spartanburg School District 4. Now serving 200 clients, Hope Reach has led the way in providing quality ABA therapy across the Upstate. Through its joint Master’s program with Florida Institute of Technology, Project HOPE Foundation is developing new Board Certified Behavior Analysts to expand services across the state. Nearly all of Hope Reach clients gain significant, measurable skills. An amazing 48% are able to enter mainstream classes; when we start services before the age of three, that percentage skyrockets to 86%
For those who continue to need services, Lisa and Susan designed the Hope Alive program in 2009. This alternative approach addresses the individual holistically, considering specific strengths and challenges. The areas covered conveniently allowed Lisa and Susan to indulge their love of acronyms: Academics, Life skills, Interests, Vocational opportunities, and Experiences (Hope Alive).
In 2010, Project HOPE Foundation piloted a new classroom model to support middle and high school students with autism who were academically able to earn a high school diploma (rather than a certificate) but who were unable to succeed in a traditional school setting. This program, Virtual Hope, uses charter school computer-based curriculum; however, students participate in a classroom designed to develop communication, social, and organizational skills. Over the years, this program has evolved into the pursuit of a GED to allow flexibility in curriculum.
Additionally in 2010, Project HOPE Foundation collaborated with Dogs for Autism (now Vested Partners), another local nonprofit organization. Together, they developed Hope Unleashed, a program designed to use trained dogs as therapy tools for children with autism and to use the dog-training process as a way to develop communication, social interaction, and vocational skills for youth and young adults with autism. In response to requests from multiple parents dealing with terrified children, Hope Unleashed developed a YouTube video, Desensitizing Children with Autism to Dogs, detailing the story of addressing one child’s fears.
In 2011, Project HOPE Foundation piloted another innovative classroom model to facilitate the successful transition of students with autism from one-on-one therapy sessions to small-group classrooms. Based on the positive results, this program, Bridging the Gap, has expanded to include both preschool, elementary, and summer options. Results from this program were presented at the 2014 Annual Association of Professional Behavior Analysts Convention in New Orleans. Bridging the Gap classrooms now serve preschool through high school.
To meet yet another unmet need, Project HOPE Foundation developed Hope Alive Junior in 2012, focusing on the students for whom success will be defined not by academics but by skills supporting an adulthood that maximizes independence, productivity, and happiness. With an emphasis on communication and community, Hope Alive Junior now serves elementary, middle school, and high school students.
In 2014, Project HOPE Foundation renovated a house to begin practicing life-skills in a “real life” setting. This Life Skills House, adjacent to the Woodruff Center, is the perfect place for daily cooking, cleaning, laundry, and personal hygiene. Additionally, this house allows "reverse respite" opportunities so that clients can have a staffed overnight stay, permitting families to have some downtime in their own homes.
Project HOPE Foundation procured the Woodruff Center in 2015, giving the organization access to nearly 14 acres for potential long-term housing. This facility was renovated in 2016, with many new "autism-friendly" features.
Additionally in 2015, Project HOPE Foundation purchased a facility in Spartanburg, which is currently being renovated. This space will provide a Downtown Spartanburg campus for ABA therapy and Bridging the Gap classrooms, opening in 2017.
In 2016, Project HOPE Foundation entered into a collaboration with Greenwood Genetic Center, Helix & Hope, combining science and services, and began offering center-based ABA therapy to clients in the GLEAMS area.
Project HOPE Foundation opened another center-based option for ABA therapy in Greenville in 2016, in space leased from the Temple of Israel.
Beginning in 2017, Project HOPE Foundation is undergoing a capital campaign to build a permanent home in Greenville County for Hope Academy (both inclusion-based and Bridging the Gap classrooms) along with additional clinical space for ABA therapy.
In moving forward with its vision of a lifespan of services for the autism community, Project HOPE Foundation will continue to: Help families, Open minds, Promote inclusion, and Expand potential.