Maurice reaches new heights at the Sears Tower

I welcome you all to this FUN holiday season. I hope every one of you has already finished your Christmas shopping! If not, you have 23 days left until Christmas to buy presents for your loved ones!

I’m writing to you about the great changes Easter Seals made prior to the holiday season. First of all, Easter Seals Headquarters just moved their offices to the 24th floor of the Sears Tower. When I first walked into the new office, all I saw was great atmosphere. It was amazing! Easter Seals has found themselves at home in the tallest building in the United States.

To celebrate, on the afternoon of December 1, Easter Seals and other tenants of the Sears Tower joined in the lobby for the annual lighting of the holiday tree. Many contributors stopped by and celebrated, including the Chicago Fire soccer team’s Brian McBride and Jarrett Payton, son of the late great Chicago Bear Walter Payton.

The afternoon started with some orchestral music, setting the atmosphere right. There were words of inspiration delivered by our own Jeanne Sowa and yours truly. After that, the crowd gathered to watch me — along with Brian McBride and his family — turn on the switch to light the tree. It was a memorable experience to take center stage and make history.

As I mentioned at the end of my speech, the holidays are the time of giving back; especially give back to those families affected by different disabilities. As a former client and current employee of Easter Seals, my mission is to continue giving back — I give to others what Easter Seals has given me. That’s the spirit of the holiday season!


Except Me: Award-winning radio piece about a brother with autism

I love making homemade bread. Kneading can get tedious though, so I usually listen to the radio during that part of the process. On Thursday morning, while preparing a loaf to bring to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving, I switched on National Public Radio.

Lucky me — they were playing all the winners of the Third Coast Festival’s Richard H. Driehaus Foundation radio essay awards! I happened to hear the “Best New Artist” winner’s essay — Except Me — about a teenager who has a little brother with autism.

Andrew Skillings is 11 now, but he was first diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism, when he was just two. Andrew’s challenges impact the whole family, especially his older sister Marissa, who struggles to find normalcy in a life that revolves around her disabled little brother.

One of my favorite lines from the essay is this: “I don’t hate my brother — I’d kill for him. But there are times I’d like to kill him, too!” Except Me is a very honest — and sweet — piece of work. If you missed hearing it Thursday, you can still hear this award-winning essay online.

I was so captivated by the piece that I ended up kneading my bread twice as long as usual!


A wonderful afternoon … the Holiday Celebration on Ice

Scottie Gaither skates with figure skater Todd EldredgeToday, I’m happy to introduce Leyla Kayi as a Guest Blogger. Leyla is Amway Global’s public relations specialist and she played a key role in making Easter Seals inclusion in the Holiday Celebration on Ice possible. Through the years, Leyla has helped lead Amway Global’s continued support of Easter Seals services that support families living with autism and other disabilities.

A wonderful afternoon …
The Amway Global Holiday Celebration on Ice

by Leyla Kayi

We at Amway Global were thrilled to have the opportunity to host kids from Easter Seals Las Vegas at the Amway Global Holiday Celebration on Ice.

What a wonderful afternoon we all had! It was so fun watching the kids like Scottie Gaither out there having a good time with the champions. You could see the joy on both the children’s and the skaters’ faces. And as always, when I have the opportunity to spend time with the folks at Easter Seals and the children and families they serve, I realize that each and every one of us has ABILITIES … and that’s what Easter Seals focuses on. It’s a privilege to work in partnership with Easter Seals.

Watch the fun and excitement during the nationwide airing of the Amway Global Holiday Celebration on Ice at 4:00 p.m. EST on November 30th on NBC!


Tune in to Amway Global’s ‘Holiday on Ice’ TV special

Note from blog moderator: We enjoyed last year’s Thanksgiving post by Barbara Gaither so much that we are publishing it again this year with this added bit of good news — this Sunday, November 30th, our friends at Amway Global are featuring Barbara Gaither’s son Scottie (last year’s National Child Representative for Easter Seals) in a segment on the Holiday Celebration on Ice television special.

As the presenting sponsor of this TV special, Amway Global provided Scottie and other Easter Seals clients with the opportunity to meet and skate with some of the biggest names in figure skating, including Nancy Kerrigan and Todd Eldredge. In addition to this opportunity, Easter Seals clients and their families were treated to a VIP reception.

You can get a glimpse of all of the fun and excitement during the nationwide airing of the Holiday Celebration on Ice at 4:00 p.m. EST on November 30th on NBC.

Be sure to tune in on November 30th, and join me in thanking our wonderful partner Amway Global for their continued commitment to Easter Seals.

What I am thankful for
by Barbara Gaither

Happy Gaither familyThis time of year, I find myself reflecting on what I am most thankful for. I have so many things in my life that have truly blessed me, but one of the most amazing blessings is having an autistic son.

Now, I can’t say that I’ve always felt that way.

When Scottie was first diagnosed with autism, I was devastated. He was our last child and our first and only son. We pinned so many hopes and dreams on him when he was born, and with that diagnosis — those dreams seemed to be crashing down one by one.

As the years passed since that initial diagnosis in 2002, I’ve grown more and more thankful for him and his diagnosis. Many would think that I’m crazy — and maybe I am a bit, but he is such a tremendous joy to me and our entire family. He has taught me not to take the little things in life for granted — and by watching him grow and learn, I have learned so very much.

It’s simply amazing. Sometimes, I wonder what life without him would be like, or even life without him being autistic and I cannot imagine it. At this point I don’t even want to. I wouldn’t change a thing about him even if I could.

Being selected as the Easter Seals 2008 National Child Representative not only gives a lot more people an opportunity to know and love this wonderful little boy, but it gives us — as a family — a chance to give back. We can give back to Easter Seals as an organization because they have given us more than words could ever express. It also gives us a chance to offer hope to other families facing the darkness of autism.

I hope that somehow, by seeing and hearing our story, there will again be light.

So, as we gather to celebrate this Thanksgiving, I will give thanks for Scottie and his sisters, Sarah and Carly, as well as my husband Shannon and all of our family, including our wonderful Easter Seals family.


Maurice + Ozzie Guillen = a good team for autism services

Ozzie and Maurice

This past weekend was another annual holiday gala for Easter Seals Metropolitan Chicago. More importantly, it marked another beginning of Easter Seals and what future lies ahead. Many people showed up to support many different services Easter Seals has to offer through the Chicago area, and many guests had different stories to tell. From what I learned by attending these past events, people help each other out from time to time, and Easter Seals is the appropriate organization where many people help one another.

The memorable highlight of the evening was a special appearance by White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who is a great spokesperson for autism. Yes, it was the same Ozzie Guillen who has visited the Easter Seals Metropolitan Chicago’s new state-of-the-art Therapeutic School and Center for Autism Research last year, the same White Sox manager who attended the unveiling of White Sox Field (a softball field designed for people with autism). White Sox Field is adjacent to the new Easter Seals Therapeutic School and Center for Autism Research on Chicago’s West Side, and Chicago White Sox Charities donated $1 million to the new facility — the largest direct contribution to the project.

It was great to see a philanthropic figure come out and share words of wisdom with Easter Seals once again. I have to say it was a privilege to reunite with Ozzie this time around because when I first met him this past summer, I was a little shy and didn’t know what words to say then. But right now, I was overjoyed to shake hands with a great celebrity once again. By meeting him, we instantly became fast friends. Not only because, just like president-elect Barack Obama, I am a die-hard White Sox fan and have been for the past 25 years, but I appreciate what Ozzie is doing for Easter Seals and autism. His words inspire hope and future for families with many different challenges and we support him 100% on this campaign.

Meeting Ozzie for the second time is a blessing not only to me and my family, but also for the people of Easter Seals. I guarantee there will be positive changes later in life for Easter Seals and Chicago. If I could tell Ozzie something, it would be, “Thanks for what you do for being a part of the Easter
Seals family. You are a true ‘role model’ for Easter Seals and I hope you’ll stay committed to this organization for years to come.”


A tragedy in Wisconsin

Empty … that’s how I feel after reading this tragic story in the Wisconsin State Journal about a murder-suicide. Kyle Dutter, a boy with severe disabilities, was murdered by his father, who then took his own life.

In the Journal’s story, more is shared about what challenges Kyle faced living with severe disabilities than the child he was. His obituary and a Web site created by his father reveal a whole lot more than a diagnosis.

What a tragic story — the stress that parents and families feel is hard to imagine. What a shame that it may have led to such a horrible thing in this instance. It just makes our work at Easter Seals, and the urgency around it, all that much more important.

I don’t have words to put anything in perspective, but I thought I should open up the discussion for you to share your thoughts, your fears and your dreams as your family lives with autism and other disabilities. Maybe in your reflections, we can find some ways to avoid this tragedy from repeating itself.


Autism, amplify, Austin

Greetings from beautiful Austin, Texas. I’m sitting outside with my talking computer during a 15-minute break from sessions at the 2008 Convio Summit. Convio develops the software Easter Seals and a number of other non-profit organizations use for online fundraising, advocacy and Email marketing.

I first found out about Convio when I participated in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Technology Opportunities Program (TOP). Easter Seals used a TOP grant to work with Convio to create web content management tools for people who are visually-impaired.

Interns who were blind or visually impaired were recruited from all over the country to work with the software and learn web content management skills. I was one of those interns, and after my internship, Easter Seals Headquarters hired me to moderate the Easter Seals and Autism blog. That’s why I’m here — the Convio Summit brings together non-profit organizations from all over North America to exchange ideas.

Already this morning, I ran into (not literally — my guide dog Hanni is doing a great job!) Margi Colston from the Autism Society of America — we sat together during the keynote address.

At lunch I sat with a woman named Shana, who works with Amplify Public Affairs. Shana told me about LDpodcast — a blog about learning disabilities. “I think she’s coverring autism topics now, too,” Shana said. “Is that something you’d be interested in?”

It was. And now, out here in the sunshine, I’m taking a moment to share that info with you. Time’s up, though — gotta get back for the next session!


We were there: Obama’s acceptance speech in Chicago last week

A week ago today I was emailing all my friends to give them the big news: my husband Mike and I had been lucky enough to snag tickets to the Obama victory party in Chicago’s Grant Park. We were there when the president-elect gave his acceptance speech.

Since then I’ve read many accounts of the well-behaved crowd at Grant Park that night — “all shapes, sizes, colors, and ages.” So far, though, I haven’t read any mention of people with autism or other disabilities being there. So today I’m writing this quick post to let you know — we were represented, too!

I left my Seeing Eye dog home that night — I thought the crowds might be too much. We only live four blocks away from Grant Park, so I knew we could get home to her quickly if necessary. I brought my white cane to the party instead, and Mike was my “sighted guide” as we waited and waited and waited to get in the park. There was a heavy police presence, especially on horses — more than once Mike had to route me around a big pile of dung!

In keeping with that theme, we staked out a spot near an oversized handicapped porta-potty once we made it into Grant Park. I used that lovely facility once, and when I came out an official approached us and said, “you know, you can stand over there if you want.” He pointed to a wide wooden ramp were people in wheelchairs were sitting.

We moved there, which meant Mike could see the stage. Two older African-American women were standing next to us; they were with a friend in a wheelchair. The women were spunky — they were having fun, calling friends on their cell phones and all that, but at the same time they were pretty serious. They didn’t want all the pageantry to make them forget how important this day was.

The crowd was huge, but mellow. Kids were texting, calling their friends, and constantly checking their iPhones for updates. “It’s like Woodstock,” said Mike, “except instead of drugs, people are using electronic devices!”

Well, there’s “change” for you! When McCain came on screen to give his concession speech, you could hear a pin drop. No one booed. Everyone listened. Respectfully. It was a memorable night, that’s for sure. And when President-elect Barack Obama got to the part of his speech where he said:

It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled …

Well, I cheered. For all of us!


Obama’s commitment to people with autism and other disabilities

Easter Seals congratulates President-elect Barack Obama on his election win. Easter Seals in Washington, D.C., and Illinois both have a strong working relationship with Barack Obama and commend his strong commitment to persons with disabilities.

The Obama-Biden team has specific policy positions on disability that are aligned with Easter Seals’ priorities. You can view their disability plan and their autism spectrum disorder Plan on the Obama-Biden Web site.

Easter Seals pledges to work with members of the incoming 111th Congress and the new administration on legislation benefiting people with disabilities and their families.


Comparing FDR and Obama

I’ve been very lucky to be involved in the disability rights movement for more than 20 years. I work in Washington, D.C., and when the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial was completed here, I gained a better appreciation of that president’s legacy as a role model for people with disabilities. Literally hundreds of people with disabilities have told me that their parents said if FDR could be president, they could be, too. Today, millions of African American parents are having the same conversation with their kids.

I am especially optimistic about one aspect of the Obama presidency: education. President-elect Obama is the product of a caring family, the potential for learning, and opportunities to demonstrate his abilities. My hope is that his leadership will result in expanding similar opportunities for students with disabilities.