Originally contributed by Estelle Slootmaker of Second Wave Media
On Thursday Nov. 16, the Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM) celebrated its new Grand Rapids-area office with a grand opening ribbon cutting and open house at its location within the Special Olympics Michigan Unified Sports & Inclusion Center, about 10 miles south of Grand Rapids proper. In addition to its board and staff members, the event highlighted AAoM’s services for local community leaders, representatives from other organizations serving people living with autism and their families, as well as health care providers who count people living with autism among their patients.
“We hosted the service provider partners that we have, other autism therapy agencies and clinics as well as our medical advisory physicians that live in Grand Rapids,” says Dr. Colleen Allen, AAoM president and CEO. “Our main goal is making sure that we are connecting families with these services. So, we are hoping the open house helps to further those relationships. We already have good relationships with Grand Rapids agencies and providers but now we have that physical presence.”
The grand opening marked a significant moment for AAoM. Founded by two parents of children living with autism in 2010, the grassroots organization now employs more than 40 mostly masters-level staff members who serve families and individuals across the state, including the Upper Peninsula.
“We’re at a stage now where we’re opening up a second location,” says Marc Berke, AAoM chief development officer. “I think it shows the true growth and the impact that AAoM has had on the State of Michigan. And it shows a real maturity of the organization, which I’m excited about.”
More than 40 well-wishers were on hand for the ribbon cutting. Both Allen and Brian Calley, AAoM board member, shared remarks about AAoM’s vision for the additional location.
“We have partners in the Grand Rapids area that, over the years — we’ve helped them, and they’ve helped us,” Allen says. “They’ve been asking for a long time, ‘When are you guys going to have an office over here?’ I’m really excited to be able to spend more time directly with some of those partners and really to get to know the community. We’ve got a lot of outreach activities that we will be planning over the coming years.”
The Grand Rapids location will expand AAoM’s Upbound Staffing employment program.
On-site employment program to benefit employers and job seekers
The Grand Rapids location will expand AAoM’s Upbound Staffing employment program. The program recruits and trains employers to welcome people with disabilities into their workforce and connects people living with autism and other disabilities to good-paying opportunities with those employers. The program currently has 26 employer partners. Employees placed through the program have maintained a 98% retention rate.
“Our location in the Special Olympic building — it houses other disability agencies — is going to give us access to more candidates,” Allen says. “That location is going to be ideal. Being remote, even if we’re able to secure an employer interested in hiring people, to source from a distance is harder to do. It’s not impossible because we’re statewide. We do a lot of things remotely. But being in Grand Rapids is going to be a real benefit.”
Overseeing AAoM’s Upbound Staffing program, Laurel Buck and Courtney Wilder will work from the Grand Rapids location. Wilder, an onboarding/human resources professional, has experience in recruitment, new employee onboarding, and training. Buck is a masters-level certified human resources professional who focuses on talent acquisition, elements of engagement, and organizational culture.
“Laurel’s background is talent acquisition. Having her in place there to source candidates locally is going to be critical for us,” Allen says. “As we engage with employer partners, we have to have people that can fill the jobs once there’s interest demonstrated. Being there physically to lead on all employment initiatives will help us to further make and grow those relationships.”
AAoM plans on hosting employment trainings and job fairs at the Grand Rapids location.
Special Olympics complex provides incredible meeting spaces
The new location also provides a physical space for Grand Rapids and West Michigan individuals and families living with autism to engage with AAoM. Before the location opened, more than 2,000 Grand Rapids-area residents were receiving virtual services from AAoM. Its MI-Navigator Julia McCarter will now be able to provide free professional consultation on clinical, educational, insurance, vocational, public safety, policy, and legal issues face-to-face as well as via phone and online platforms. AAoM’s MI-Navigators have consulted with more than 12,000 families directly. Thousands more have received help through AAoM community education and training initiatives.
“Our navigator program has been accessible to any resident throughout the state, including Grand Rapids. That will continue at the new location,” Allen says. “We will also be doing outreach, education, and trainings there. I think this location is going to give us the opportunity to do more family trainings and educational forums. It’s such a great venue for bringing community together and for us to lead some of those initiatives.”
AAoM will also leverage the new office space to increase access to its other programming. For example, when COVID vaccines were rolled out for children, AAoM’s MI-Navigators have also focused on sharing science-based COVID-19 vaccine facts as well as guidance on preparing children and adults with ASD for a vaccination. AAoM works with agencies and therapy centers across Michigan to establish vaccine clinics where individuals with autism can comfortably take part — vaccinations can be difficult for people with autism, especially children who live with behavioral, communication, and sensory challenges. The new location provides one more venue for these clinics.
“When families call us, contact us, or even just happen to walk into our office, they’re going to be met with somebody who comes with deep expertise in various areas,” Allen says. “Our Mi-Navigators are cross-trained to address the majority of issues that come to us. Their expertise around a number of different fields is how we can be most effective with families. We love our volunteers, but we’re not a volunteer organization. Our staff is a professional group.”
In addition to its extensive database of programs and services across the state of Michigan, having people on the ground in Grand Rapids will provide more families and individuals with access to services across the lifespan, from diagnosis, finding sensory-friendly doctors, and meeting educational needs to employment and independent living.
“I think having a physical presence in Grand Rapids is really important,” Berke concludes. “Having an office within the Special Olympics Complex with all of these other disability nonprofits will really lead to that collaborative, community sense — and that is what we’ve been doing all along. I think it’s important to have a physical location for the second largest city in Michigan.”
To learn more, visit: www.aaomi.org.