Center to Combine Therapy and Preschool

When Tami Lawrence and Tripp Ritchie founded Lowcountry Autism Foundation in August 2007, one of their immediate goals was to find a way to get local children the critical assessments they needed for a possible autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. Most area families had to endure a six- to eight-month wait for an assessment at the Medical University of South Carolina, and such a big chunk of time spent waiting can make for a drastic hang-up in a very young child’s development.

Thanks to a cadre of dedicated volunteers, and superstars like Tripp and Tami at the helm, the foundation hit the ground running and hasn’t looked back. They found, trained and paid for therapists and other medical professionals to help with their mission, and in the past 22 months they’ve performed 60 evaluations of children.

Now the foundation has set its sights even higher — to a comprehensive therapy center where young children (ages 2-6 developmentally) on the autism spectrum will receive an early childhood education with occupational, speech and applied behavior analysis embedded in the curriculum. The duo is scouting locations for the center in Beaufort County, and they hope to start offering the preschool program in January 2011.

We asked Tami and Tripp about their plans, and about the foundation’s successes and goals.

Why is a comprehensive therapy center needed for young children on the autism spectrum?

Tripp: Right now, the typical child on the autism spectrum sees different therapists at different sites, and none of them see each other. So there’s no continuity of where the child is, it’s a very disjointed way of helping a child progress. The idea with the center is for a child to begin school and therapy in a comprehensive way from the very beginning, to establish a progression for the child as early as possible. So by the time they’re school-aged they are approaching a regular curriculum and can be placed in a regular classroom. They’ll probably still receive some services but hopefully they’ll be catching up to mainstream kids.

Would it operate like a normal preschool?

Tripp: In a way, yes. It would be for children ages 2-6 developmentally, and the model we’ve worked up includes two three-hour sessions, plus the possibility of an after-school session for older kids who need speech therapy, ABA, or tutoring. A child will get needed therapy as part of the curriculum, but they would also be pulled out of the classroom to receive one-on-one therapy if needed, and then return to their classroom. We already have a teacher and a teacher’s aid on board; now we’re looking for the necessary therapists.

Where will it be? Do you have a location yet?

Tami: LAF is considering a few different locations between Hilton Head and Beaufort. We’re trying to find something that is accessible to the greatest number of families, including our military families. Ideally, we would find a nice multi-room center to accommodate all components of the LAF-CTC: education, therapy, and assessment.

How much is it going to cost to open and operate such a center?

Tripp: According to the business model we created, we need about $93,000 for the first quarter, and about $360,000 for the whole year. What we need for this model to work are 20 children. That might seem like a lot, but the model has us netting about $100,000 a year, and that money will go back into doing more assessments, eventually establishing a building fund, and helping with the other programs LAF provides to children on the spectrum.

How much will it cost for a child to attend the school?

Tripp: For most families their child’s therapies are covered by insurance, and we’re looking at waiving the out-of-pocket fees for families. So technically the families still aren’t going to be paying anything for the therapies, but they will pay for the school itself — just like they would if their child attended any preschool program. The classroom fee will be scaled based on the family’s income, and insurance will be billed for, say, one hour of occupational therapy and one hour of speech therapy.

How much have you raised so far?

Tripp: Not nearly enough. We were hoping to get the people who are most impacted — the families themselves — to help with fundraising, but we’re struggling with that. They’re all excited about the prospect of the center, it’s just getting them to do something, to act, is the challenge.

Why do you think it’s been difficult to get the needed funding?

Tami: It seems we are always hearing about the difficult economy, and there is no question that some people are experiencing financial hardship today. The amount of money we need to raise to get started may seem overwhelming at first, but the fact that our center will quickly become self-sustaining should be comforting to potential donors and investors. We have staff and programs in place, ready to hit the ground running, once funding is acquired. Our Board and many other volunteers, including LAF families, are actively working on our Capital Campaign, and funds are trickling in. We will just keep plugging away until we reach our goal!

Are there any fundraisers planned?

Tami: Yes! Tripp and I were just brainstorming, and we plan to organize a few fundraisers in addition to our Annual Spring Fling, held every May. I don’t want to let the proverbial cat out of the bag, but we should have at least two very fun fundraisers coming up before the end of the year, so stay tuned!