COVID isn’t stopping drive to expand Providence autism center

The need is great and fundraising continues, even without the annual Festival of Trees this year.

EVERETT — Autism doesn’t wait during a pandemic.

As society masks up and isolates, nervous parents continue to reach out to experts at the Providence Boyden Family Autism Center in Everett in search of answers to help children whose social behaviors and, often, cognitive development lag behind their peers.

The demand to help these families is enormous. Parents know a diagnostic assessment of autism can open doors for critical services.

For every child the autism center can enroll, many others must wait for months.

That is why efforts are underway to expand the autism center and the services it can provide.

This year, the Providence General Foundation had hoped to help raise $1 million toward expanding the autism center through its popular and financially successful annual Festival of Trees celebration. Then COVID hit in February and spread through the spring. By summer, the decision was made: For the health and safety of the community, there would not be a Festival of Trees in 2020.

There wouldn’t be the hundreds of volunteers or the gala and auction, which are typically attended by more than 700 people who are in a giving mood. Nor would there be the community day that attracts a thousand others, including children as well as seniors bused in from retirement homes.

The Providence General Foundation would have to shift gears, and, like so many other nonprofits, go virtual and hope for the best.

This year the Festival of Trees is the Festival of Dreams, but the $1 million fundraising goal remains. The Festival of Dreams is an online way to pledge and see how some trees were decorated for the holidays.

“Despite the challenges this year, we believe we can do this — without a gala event, without items to auction or paddles to raise,” said Lori Kloes, chief development officer for the Providence General Foundation. “We can do this because our kids need us to show up for them — this year, more than ever. Their dreams are depending on us.”

Jill McDaniel is the clinical manager at the autism center, which has done more than 630 diagnostic assessments for autism since the program began in 2014. Autism can be perplexing, exasperating and certainly heartbreaking for parents whose children fall within the spectrum of complex neurodevelopmental disorders. There are no obvious signs that something might be amiss at birth. Autism creeps up on unsuspecting families over weeks, months and years.

The autism spectrum is immeasurable in depth and breadth and as unique as each of the millions of people it encompasses. It is estimated that one in 62 children in Washington is diagnosed as falling on the spectrum.

The expansion would allow the autism center to increase clinical hours tenfold, from 5,184 per year to 56,064. That includes expanding the day treatment program, adding more spots and introducing a bridge program for children graduating from day treatment.

“To me, nothing speaks louder of their unmet needs than the fact that we still have families calling every day to take part in a diagnostic clinic and/or therapy program taking place in a hospital in the middle of a pandemic,” McDaniel said. “Many things can afford to be put on hold, but the call to meet the needs of the children we serve and their families cannot.”

The Boyden family, the center’s namesake, is matching donations dollar for dollar, up to $250,000.

“No child should have to wait for necessary treatment,” Richard Boyden said in a news release. “This autism center is changing lives and we are determined to help even more children and families get access to the expert help they need, when they need it.”

For more information, visit www.providencegeneralfoundation.org and click on the “Festival of Dreams” link.

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