Spartanburg Herald Journal Features Project HOPE

As ratio of children diagnosed with autism climbs, one Spartanburg agency hopes to expand services

Twenty-five years ago, Lisa Lane knew little about autism, and less about how it would impact her own life.

Today, the organization she co-founded and directs with Susan Sachs — the Project HOPE Foundation — provides a lifeline for Upstate families searching for answers in the wake of an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. Launched as a specialized effort in 1997 as Lane and Sachs were seeking therapy for their young children, Project HOPE Foundation has grown into a multi-county clinic serving families with loved ones who have autism across a continuum of services and therapies from birth through early adulthood.

They’ve been on the move in recent years, adding a Spartanburg location at 200 Elford Court just a year ago to help Hub City residents better access their services. And now the group plans to unveil a new location in Landrum later this year.

Project HOPE Foundation spokeswoman Amanda Harley said the group expects to move most of its Hope Academy classrooms to one central location in Landrum. While a specific location has yet to be announced, Harley said the move will allow the foundation to consolidate its school operations and free up space in some of its existing buildings for other programs.

For Lane, it’s just the latest step in a journey that began in 1996 when her then-18-month-old son Colby began exhibiting symptoms that left her searching for answers. Following her intuition, she attended an Upstate autism conference at Converse College. Just 20 minutes spent listening to the stories of other families left her convinced.

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.