Autism diagnosis leads Simpsonville family to Project HOPE

Becki and Tommy Plumer felt that something wasn’t quite right with their son, Jack, early on.

At 18 months old, he couldn’t link his words together, his mom said.

Then he had trouble grasping a crayon.

And he couldn’t engage socially with people.

Eventually, their sweet little boy was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and their search for help led them to the Project HOPE Foundation.

“It's been a blessing for us,” Becki Plumer said. “He has just thrived with this program.”

The foundation provides services to more than 200 children with autism including education, support and individualized applied behavior analysis therapy. It also offers social groups and other programs for adults.

The nonprofit was co-founded in 1996 by Lisa Lane and Susan Sachs — now both executive directors — after their sons were diagnosed with autism and services were hard to come by.

Lane said that with the condition now affecting 1 in 68 children, the need for Project HOPE’s services is more critical than ever.

“Literally hundreds of children are waiting for services, and that number is growing every day,” she said.

“Unfortunately, most funding sources do not cover the cost of providing autism treatment," she added. "We rely on the generosity of our supporters to be able to provide these life-saving interventions for children, youth, adults and families who are living with autism.”

One of the foundation’s major fundraisers is An Evening of Hope, a gala event that begins with a cocktail reception, dinner, and live and silent auctions followed by music and dancing.

The auctions include items such as two tickets to see “Hamilton” at the Peace Center with dinner and hotel, two VIP passes to watch a live filming of America’s Funniest Videos in Hollywood with airfare and accommodations, a Harley Davidson motorcycle, and a hot tub from Hot Springs Pools & Spas.

Last year, the event raised more than $1 million. This year’s event is being held on April 28 at the TD Convention Center.

“Last year’s Evening of Hope gala was a phenomenal success,” said Sachs. “We are always amazed at the generosity of this community. As an organization, we know that every minute matters and every dollar counts. "We hope to once again raise lots of dollars so that we can provide many more minutes of service.”

The Plumers, of Simpsonville, spent three years on a waiting list to get Jack into Project HOPE, Beckie Plumer said. And while they waited, Tommy, a vice president at Synnex Corp., launched a golf tournament to benefit the school.

Since Jack, now 11, began going to Project HOPE three years ago, he’s made incredible progress, his mom said.

“At HOPE, classes are so small. It’s only eight children and a teacher and assistant,” she said. “They can pinpoint where he needs to be."

Socially, she said, Jack is now able to understand other people's facial expressions and vocal tones and engage with them. And academically, he's making great strides, improving in writing and math especially.

"He is a completely different child," Plumer said. "At HOPE, he gets understanding and support. We'll stay as long as we can."

For tickets to An Evening of Hope, go to www.projecthopesc.org/eoh.

2015 Hope Academy Holiday Program

The night began with the poised and commanding presence of a young adult with autism who once banged his head against concrete floors. It closed with beautifully enunciated words delivered by a young man who was speechless until the age of eight.

In between was a steady stream of extraordinary “ordinary moments.”

Tiny elves jingled bells and smiled out with joy at the 300+ spectators in the audience – a sight for which it is impossible to prepare. A set of reindeer hokey pokied their way into our hearts and we saw bravery in action as composure was quickly gained despite emotional upheaval. Children, who once paid no attention to other people beamed at their families, festooned as happy Christmas trees. Preschoolers just learning gross motor skills line danced across the stage and lassoed our attention with their snazzy cowboy costumes and fancy footwork. First graders who are just emerging verbally stepped up to the microphone to tell jokes and worked the crowd like vaudeville pros. A class made Santa appear before our very eyes – as we watched in amazement at their equally magical ability to wait and to take turns. A group who is learning social skills along with their academics demonstrated a range of emotions, including a blue Elvis, a distant girlfriend, and a cheerful Christmas tree– and actually held hands to take their bow! Second and third graders conveyed their memorized lines with perfect timing, tugging on a stuck Santa and collapsing on the floor on cue, all without losing self-control. 4th and 5th graders with sensory issues donned storm trooper masks and handled light sabers. Another group of 4th and 5th graders caroled us with bells, never losing their composure even when a bell slipped away. A K5/1st grade group, some with autism and some without, blessed us with their acapella rendition of “Let There Be Peace On Earth,” with synchronized sign language and sincerity shining on every face.

Hope abounded tonight.

SCISA Accreditation Team Visits Hope Academy

On Thursday, March 26, Hope Academy hosted an accreditation team from the South Carolina Independent School Association (SCISA). Dr. Victoria Oglan, Todd Kirk, and Janie Goodman spent the day touring Hope Academy’s inclusion classes and Bridging the Gap classes as well as reviewing school records, curriculum guides, and plans. The team's feedback was overwhelmingly positive in every area of evaluation. Special thanks to Pam Townsell and Suzanne Hyman for their extensive document preparation, to Stephanie Martin and Kelly Fairbairn for serving as Board representatives for this visit, and to each teacher for demonstrating the good work that is happening every day in our classrooms.

First Annual Hope Hoedown

Our first Hope Hoedown was a tremendous success.  Over 100 people joined us on a wet, cold evening.  Students from preschool through 5th grade demonstrated their square dancing skills, including the ability to be kind to a partner, to listen to directions, to demonstrate flexibility, and to work as a team!  We then welcomed friends and families to the dance floor.  With our students serving as mentors, along with encouragement from teachers and therapists, the entire group transformed quickly into a mass of organized motion!

Hope Academy Welcomes Grandparents and Special Guests

Hope Academy and Team HOPE hosted over 90 grandparents and special friends, welcoming them into our classrooms and serving a delicious brunch.  Our guests participated in classroom activities, viewed a school-wide art exhibit, and listened to science project presentations.  We had a wonderful morning of bonding over our mutual love and admiration for our great group of students!

Palmetto Kids FIRST awards Scholarships

Palmetto Kids FIRST Scholarship Program provides scholarship grants to K-12 “exceptional needs” students through the implementation of the 2013 South Carolina Educational Credit for Exceptional Needs. A donation through this program provide a 100% dollar-for-dollar tax credit for South Carolina income tax, a federal charitable deduction, and significant savings for AMT taxpayers.

As a participating program, we have been able to secure scholarships nearly 50 students in our inclusion-based classes, our Bridging the Gap Elementary classes and our Hope Alive Junior class.

These scholarships provide immense financial relief to families who have been covering out-of-pocket therapy costs.

Celebration of Hope!

Hope Academy's annual holiday program is over ... and my heart is full.  In a single hour, a multitude of celebrations unfolded.

The opening welcome was handled by four of our alumni, the first group from Hope Academy to be graduating from high school, which includes my older son, Rixon.  Although each of these seniors moved from our program into different high schools, all of them have made their mark - taking honors and AP classes, participating in the arts and sports, holding leadership positions.  After four years, they remain friends, eager to come back to recognize the impact of Hope Academy on their lives.

One of our current 8th graders, a leader with a quiet disposition who had opted to be the stage manager so that he would not have a speaking part, made a surprise request to do our opening prayer. He wrote a heartfelt, eloquent message and prayed it with conviction.

The preschoolers sang with gusto, the children with autism positioned next to friends who stood ready to help. Parents of the children with autism marveled to see them smiling into an audience of nearly 300.  Parents of "typical" students had tears in their eyes as they watched their children befriend their peers who were unsure about what to do.

One of our 3rd graders with autism, who often speaks too softly to be heard, proclaimed his lines into the microphone with poise, waiting for the applause to die down before delivering his next words.

A 1st grader with autism, who started with us this year with the expectation that we might not hear her speak for months, joined her class on stage and spoke clearly into the microphone, breaking into an angelic grin!

A 2nd grader who has struggled with anxiety laid her fears aside and took charge of her friend with autism, handling the microphone for him and guiding him off the stage.

In a beautiful blend of traditions, one 2nd grader wearing his yarmulke explained the significance of the menorah.  His friend, garbed as an angel, discussed the creche.

The 1st graders belted out "Frosty the Snowman," arms linked as they swayed back and forth, a plan they devised on their own to help their classmate with autism who was unable to stand in place.

One student on the autism spectrum was placed in charge of the light system, handling 26 different light changes all by himself.  Another managed four costume changes and brought down the house with his comedic role.  My younger son, Colby, performed the role of a doctor, for the first time in 7 years speaking lines that could be understood by the audience without benefit of written prompts.

Truly a celebration of hope!